5/26/13

Last weekend: Suicide, Kim Young Ha, NK

Credit: Joanne Cho
Event 1: Friday night I went to a talk given by Fulbright junior researcher Joanne Cho. She did a great job putting together statistics about some of the most commonly cited reasons that so many Koreans commit suicide.

Probably the most provocative tidbit: Cho watched 86 dramas from the spring of 2012 to now, she says that 63 had "scenes depicting or discussing suicide" in a favorable light (as a way to solve problems, that troubled people can be forgiven for their sins and are even seen as sympathetic).


Another interesting tidbit: While it is often cited that Korea is number one in the world in suicide (among countries reporting reliable statistics), what I had not realized or had forgotten is that Korean men are number 8 in the world compared to men in other countries with reliable statistics, Korean women are #1 in the world when compared to women in other countries.

My questions for the speaker:

1) What was a finding in your research that Koreans are most likely to dispute?

I asked that because her findings seem to be the rounding up of the typical suspects. That's not to criticize her, but I bet that long-timers in Korea would not have been surprised by what she said. A lot of it was good research about theories commonly accepted.

At a deeper level, I asked the question because there may be a deeper reason that Koreans are committing suicide, but that it might not be getting discussed or admitted. She pointed to the military culture, and that Koreans said that was not going to change, even if it led to more suicides.

2) She was blaming the media for having a major role in suicide, which may be true.

Fulbright junior researcher Joanne Cho with Casey Lartigue, Jr.
But blaming the media doesn't help with understanding a problem. I pointed out that no one is really happy with the media. Every group, nationality, interest group, political party, skin color, both genders, etc., complain about the media. Probably only the criminals running the NK government don't complain about their local media--and in their case, they have threatened to bomb South Korean newspapers writing negative things about them.

I'm not saying that the media doesn't deserve to be blamed, but that it is like blaming oxygen for fire. A) let's just assume that the media is a problem, but that there isn't much we can do about it B) many more people don't commit suicide despite the media doing its evil things.

So I asked if her proposed restrictions on the media would really help slow the suicide rate--and if such a clampdown on the media would be justified.

And I wanted to ask about the necessary restrictions on doing research about suicide when the people who best know why they committed suicide are dead. Interviewing people who haven't committed suicide about people who did...

Okay, so I enjoyed the presentation overall with my usual gripes and questions.

Event 2: The serious talk about suicide then put me in an even worse mood as I prepared to go to a talk by popular author Kim Young Ha.

In the front row, and ready to go. (Photo: John Steele)
I will just say it: His Kim Young-Ha's book I have the right to destroy myself is a piece of trash. Popular trash, best-selling trash, but still trash.

I do love the title--but a better title would have been, "I have the right to help Korean women kill themselves."

It is a creepy story about a psychopath who tries to find troubled Korean women, and guide them to committing suicide. He expresses interest in guiding anyone who wants to commit suicide, but it just so happens that it is women that he typically seduces, then guides into committing suicide.

I wasted about $16 buying the book, I wasted time reading the book, and I wasted time going to a book discussion with him. I walked out after an hour of his chit-chat. I had a few questions but couldn't stand to look at an author who wrote such a psychopathic book.

Think about it: Cho is a researcher examining the serious issue of suicide, the next was a flippant author writing garbage about suicide.

I couldn't stand to look at Ha.(Photo: John Steele)
As I was reading Ha's book, I had the sense that it was a book written for middle-class people who want to watch the losers in society struggle with it. And, according to Ha, those losers would be better off killing themselves. I didn't enjoy such trashy books even when I was young--and now, it is pathetic that people enjoy such sordid tales.

The book is only 118 pages, but it feels like 1180. The last 20 were especially painful when I realized that Ha was not going to make an important point. As I got to the last page, I was thinking, "I could write a better book--tonight." Comedy, thoughtful analysis, dramas are all so much difficult than writing fiction about psychopaths. Because books about psychopaths, by their definition, don't need to make sense. They are looking into the criminal mind, trying to figure out why deviants engage in deviant behavior.

I had many questions and comments as I listened, but suddenly got up to leave. The ones I can remember now:

1) What would Ha (and his readers) think about a man who really did try to encourage young Korean women to commit suicide? Whereas Ha is loved by readers, I suspect that Ha's readers would not like such a psychopath in reality.
2) I know he wrote a piece of fiction, but if he tried to be serious, what would he say is the cultural reason that Koreans commit suicide? And what is the reason that isn't often discussed?
3) What was the redeeming feature of his book? Meaning, after reading it, what is a positive thing that a reader could say, "Wow, after reading that, I learned _______________."
4) Would he agree with Joanne Cho that the media encourages suicide--if yes, does he believe his own book presenting suicide as a good option for young Korean women could also help to encourage young Korean women to commit suicide?
5)  Could he put me in touch with his publisher? I am confident I could write a better book. Writing about psychopaths is easy.


(I may add a few more comments tomorrow, I think I left my copy of Ha's book at the office. I usually like to have authors sign copies of books, but not in this case. At this point, I have nothing good to say about the book, I will check the notes I scribbled in the book to see if I do have at least one kind thing to mention.)

* * *

Event #3: At the same time I was listening to Ha, there was an event about 20 minutes away. Some activists were protesting the repatriation of North Korean escapees by China.

Decisions, decisions. Wait around so I could ask Ha a question about the nonsense he had written, getting a vague answer in response, or go to an event about something important? I suddenly got up and walked out. It helped that I couldn't stand to look at Ha's face anymore.

Going to the rally reminded me of some protests I attended in America. These were the die-hard protestors. Whereas as some people come out to rallies when there is a celebrity or there is something particularly newsworthy, these demonstrators are the ones who will stand out in the rain or hold a rally even when it will only be them.

With the activists after the rally.
In particular, it reminded me of protests I attended about 8 years ago in Washington, DC. While some of the protest leaders only showed up when cameras were most likely to be there, Dick Gregory, an old radical from the 1960s, was there every day. I was opposed to what he and his colleagues were demonstrating about, but it was clear that they were the true-believers, for what that's worth.

So yesterday, the usual suspects were out, protesting the Chinese government and North Korea. There are a few protestors in particular who are at every protest, holding signs mocking Kim Jong-eun.

* * *

Event #4: I suddenly had to go shopping. The various levels of government in South Korea are continuing their war on successful businesses, in the name of something idiotic called "economic democratization." Of course, the defenders of the policy don't come right out and say they are trying to punish successful businesses. They have a whole list of euphemisms and explanations. In the final analysis, when looking at their methods rather than their intentions, they are punishing successful businesses as a way of protecting less successful businesses.

The government is trying to get me to shop at other places, but it isn't the government's business where I want to shop. So I had to shop on Saturday night rather than when I would have preferred on Sunday.

One friend who supports the policy notes that it isn't much of a convenience--but it isn't her choice to decide what is convenient for me, just as I don't try to determine when it is convenient for her to shop. "I've got a right to destroy myself"--but do I have to right to shop for myself, when I choose?

* * *

Event #5: I got up early this morning to help out at the Mulmangcho School in Yeoju. It was a delight, as usual.
Yesterday in Yeoju with the volunteers at the Mulmangcho School for NK adolescent refugee children.