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The Flip Side Of The Miracle Of The Han River: A Bridge Of Suicide

The Han River is South Korea’s largest stream of water that cuts across the nation's capital, Seoul. Just as tourists across the world envision the beautiful scenery alongside La Seine whenever thinking of wandering Paris, the Han River reflects Seoul, the nation, and the Korean identity.


As tourists get off at Yeoui-naru, a public subway station located in the northern part of Seoul, a must-go spot will show up where a mob of tourists take photos with the sign “I Seoul you” behind them. It is an emblem created by the government’s intention to project a positive image of the city worldwide inspired by the slogan “I love New York.” The riverside is lined up with a plethora of food festivals, concerts, and recreational activities, including the cherry blossom festival, which takes place from late April to early May.


Really, the Han River is a nation’s identity. The lively spot is filled with youth; it’s vibrant and energetic with talented street artists performing while functioning as a public forum where people of all ages gather around and have a nice time.


“The Miracle of Han River” is what I was constantly told as an elementary school student in light of appreciating what the country has accomplished in terms of economic growth, and therefore kids in the classroom were educated to be proud of being Korean.


It is, to some degree, true. The people of Korea brought democracy on their own, resisting the dictatorship that took over the country for decades. The country went through decades of compact industrialization projects and ended up possessing highly-developed technologies in vehicle and microchip production that are best represented by such a handful of conglomerates as Samsung, Hyundai, and SK Hynix.


But what comes to one’s mind at first is the “River of Suicide,” whenever thinking of the Han River. People throw themselves into the bleak, dark water to end their lives. Hidden by the nation’s ever-growing GDP and its increasing soft power, it’s hardly recognized that people in Korea are getting more reserved, depressed, lonely, and resentful.


The nation, in 2020, again recorded the highest in terms of suicide rate with an estimated 24.1 out of 100,000 individuals committing suicide. It’s among the highest out of every developed country, and 2021 saw even more casualties, with “at least 13,000 people in South Korea ending their life,” according to The Economic Times report from the previous year.


Suicide remains the leading cause of death among the youth, in particular, due to financial insecurities, relationship disorders, high expectations, and so forth. Some might credit it to the financial downtrend driven by the Covid-19 pandemic with a surge in housing prices. Others might attribute it to the nation’s educational system, which distresses teenagers with an excessive amount of work dedicated to the nation’s SAT, or Su-neung. While both force people to end their lives, it’s necessary to look into the bottom line to identify where the insecurity actually is coming from.


It is because we judge each other. Not to mention that we project ourselves onto others, which makes us feel even more deprived. Men in their 20s tend to purchase the so-called top three made-from-Germany vehicles –any vehicles labeled with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi would work –to be able to show off how successful we are, which, in fact, we mostly aren’t. It is not uncommon to see high-brand vehicles pulled into the low-quality duplex, which echoes people's aspiration over becoming young-and-rich while, in reality, we struggle to pay monthly rent. Since people tend to make a small downpayment when purchasing the coveted Mercedes, it becomes even more daunting to pay off the remaining balance.


We buy Mercedes, whatsoever, because it’s Mercedes. Consequently, it turns into a snowball rolling downhill; you wind up with thousands of dollars of fixed costs per month. People, however, risk it anyway because it helps people around them to look up to them.


The same goes for looking, how flamboyant your purse is, and what fancy hobbies you have outside of work or school. Your daughter would most likely ask you if she could have the double eyelid surgery as she enters middle school. You probably should afford it because anyone else in the school has already gone through it over the winter break last year when the girls graduated elementary school.


Moreover, top-tier brands like Chanel, Hermés, and Prada are so popular in Korea that you should probably have at least one Instagram post with your cute Chanel purse on your shoulder. The subtle part is that you don’t want it to be too obvious, but you desperately expect your followers to notice that you just got the beloved Chanel purse.


What if you ended up not having one? You feel left behind for not owning the goddamn Mercedes and Chanel purse. And it really deteriorates your mental health which eventually leads to disorders in well-being: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial, community, and physical health. 


Since the nation has a very outdated perspective as to mental health awareness, there is a widespread tendency among Korean to avoid therapy care. People are afraid of being judged for having a history of mental care. Old people would label it as a lack of will to persevere even when one was met with an existential crisis. Although social awareness regarding mental health has seen progress, it is likely to take a while for people to entirely feel secure disclosing the mental issues they have been going through.   


In short, a rampant prevalence of materialism along with a lack of access to mental care resulted in chronic suicide rates in Korean society.


“The bridge of Life,” a campaign the Korean government initiated in 2012 to prevent people from precipitating themselves into the Han River best reflects how common it was for people to end their lives on Mapo Bridge, a spot known for a lot of people diving into the water to commit suicide. As part of the campaign, the government engraved such heartwarming words on the guardrails that they would illuminate as passengers walk alongside. 


Such words include “It’s been a long day, how did your day go?”  to “I can’t imagine how hard it would be to go through what you’re going through,” to have potential suicide committers think twice before they initiate it. The number of suicide rates soared in subsequent years, and the government took it all down in 2019 for not bringing any incentives at all.


While the words on the bridge are gone, its implication persists. It reminds me of a lack of communication with one another. It is a profound insecurity we have had so much we are the most vulnerable on the globe when it comes to ending our lives. Besides, it resonates with the dark side of the nation that has been sugarcoated by the hyped growth. 


“The Miracle of the Han River” no longer should be an aspiration over apparent growth. Rather, what matters from now on is how we bring miracles in our real life. 

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Tags: South Korea mentalhealth Han River


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