Seoul. A day after meeting the school psychiatrist, a 19-year-old mathematics student at South Korea’s most prestigious engineering college jumped to his death from a high-rise apartment. He was distressed over low grades.
The gifted student’s suicide last week was not an isolated incident. Three other students have killed themselves since January at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which admits only the brightest South Korean students.
The deaths of four young people might not normally draw attention in a nation that has the highest suicide rate in the developed world and one of the world’s highest.
Several high-profile South Koreans, including former President Roh Moo-hyun, have taken their own life in recent years.
But occurring at a university that aspires to be a local version of the vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the suicides have jolted the nation and have left many wondering if South Korea’s unabashed pursuit of overachievement has gone too far.
“We tend to consider everyone other than the first-place winner as losers,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychologist at Seoul National University. “As the society gets modernized, human relations [are] cut. People don’t have friends to share their hardships and listen to their problems.”
The obsession with academic success has given rise to a new expression among young people: “umchinah,” or my mother’s friend’s son — the elusive competitor who excels at everything.
The pressure to perform begins in high school. Classes begin around 8 a.m. and finish around 4 p.m. but in some schools, students are required to stay up to 10 p.m. Some even study with tutors until 2 a.m. ahead of key exams.
Getting admission into colleges like KAIST is the ultimate dream of most high school science students.
According to Education Ministry figures, three elementary school students, 53 junior high students and 90 high school students committed suicide last year alone.
Investigations are underway to determine what drove the four KAIST students, all males aged between 19 and 25, to suicide.
But blame is being heaped on the university’s US-educated president, Suh Nam-pyo, and his ambitious efforts to create an ultra-competitive environment meant to carve an international name for the university.
After taking over in 2006, Suh ordered most of the university’s classes to be taught in English and imposed fines on students with poor grades. Otherwise, the state-funded college provides free education.
“Now we are becoming like a saw-toothed wheel of a huge machine. We cannot spare even 30 minutes for our friends even if they get into some trouble. We only study subjects that we can get higher grades in,” the student council said in a statement. “President Suh, you are wrong!”
Suh also made it easier to fire professors falling behind certain standards. The moves initially drew strong support, and KAIST’s placing in world university ranks rose dramatically.
Proponents lauded the 74-year-old as the icon of South Korean campus reform. However, the adulation didn’t last long.
His actions have been fiercely debated this year amid news reports that the four dead students suffered immense stress over their schoolwork.
In January, a 19-year-old freshman on academic probation killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Two students jumped to their deaths last month.
The latest, identified only by his surname, Park, had graduated from a high school for gifted students before joining KAIST, where he was majoring in mathematical science.
University officials said he had applied for a leave of absence, citing depression, and consulted the school psychiatrist on April 6, a day before he killed himself.
Adding to the debate, a KAIST professor was found dead on Sunday, hanging from a gas pipe at his home following an investigation into allegations that he embezzled official research funds.
Politicians, activists and liberal professors outside KAIST are calling for Suh’s resignation. He was questioned by a parliamentary committee earlier this week to explain the recent deaths.
Before Park’s death, Suh defended his policies, saying smart students would not come to a university that did not challenge them.
He later offered a public apology for the deaths and pledged to abolish financial penalties for low grades and ease rules on English-only classes.
But he said the competitive program may not be the only reason for the suicides and that he had no plans to resign immediately.