I have reported on 30 Korean celebrity suicides. The blame game never changes

06-Jan-2020 Intellasia | The Guardian | 6:02 AM Print This Post

On a hot August day in 2008, I was invited to appear on a TV entertainment programme hosted by actor Ahn Jae-hwan. I noticed Ahn was behaving oddly, walking nervously around the studio whenever he was off camera. He was running a business on the side, and it wasn’t doing well. He was inundated with complaints and had become the target of an online boycott and malicious comments.

I was very worried and mentioned my concern to an actress who was an old friend. “I am worried he might choose to end it all,” I told her. My actor friend said she knew his problems and that his friends and colleagues were trying to help him. Later that month Ahn took his own life.

On the day they found him, the actor and I went to the hospital where his body had been taken. She was in such a state of shock that she was unable to walk properly. The waiting photographers caught all of this. The photos ran with the caption: “Actress in shock at not being able to get the money back from dead actor.” She and other people in the industry had loaned Ahn money but the media portrayed them as loan sharks. People were looking for someone to blame for Ahn’s death, and she was the easiest target.

That actor was Choi Jin-sil, then one of the most in-demand women in the industry. Forty days after Ahn killed himself, Choi took her own life. I and a few other people had been out drinking with her just four hours before she died. I had heard her last words: “As the victim of internet hate I don’t think abusive comments should be allowed,” she had said. “I want to campaign to stop them, retire from entertainment and do charity work, like Audrey Hepburn. I’m tired of it all.”

I found out about her death at 5am the next day from her younger brother, Choi Jin-young, an actor and singer.

When I arrived at Choi’s funeral, her younger brother started hitting me, crying: “You promised to protect my sister! Why couldn’t you?” Two years later, in March 2010, he too killed himself. Three years later, in January 2013, Choi Jin-sil’s ex-husband and the father of their two children, the former baseball player Cho Seong-min, also took his own life. He had become the target of online abuse in the wake of Choi Jin-sil’s death.

Six years later, little has changed, and there has been another spike in high-profile suicides. Sulli was found dead in October, Goo Hara in November and Cha In Ha in December.

Whatever change there has been has made matters worse. I dread getting calls in the middle of the night in case it is to tell me about another suicide by a South Korean celebrity.

Suicide is not confined to South Korea’s entertainment industry, of course. I have reported on the scene for the past 30 years, covering 30 suicides, and I can say with absolute certainty that this is a problem for everyone in South Korean society. The statistics speak for themselves. More South Koreans kill themselves than people in other OECD countries. The figures for 2019 have yet to be published, but everyone predicts South Korea will come top yet again.

I can’t explain why so many South Korean entertainers have taken their own lives. We can’t pretend to know each motivation, whether it be money problems, relationships, family issues, declining popularity, online abuse, or any number of other factors. Attempting to explain each death would just encourage the trolls.

The Korean Association of Journalists’ guidelines advise reporters not to reveal the methods people use to take their own lives, or to mention the location and motive.

When Sulli was being criticised for posting “controversial” photos on social media, I said during a TV appearance that she was seeking the public’s understanding and affection, and that her critics should take the time to try to understand her.

I too have become a target. I get hate calls, texts and online comments daily.

South Korean society obsesses over celebrity divorces, with speculation about who is the “guilty party”. There is a similar obsession with why celebrities kill themselves. Some of the responsibility has to lie with reporters who think only of how many clicks their articles will attract, even if it means spewing out falsehoods and speculation.

There is no easy solution. Most entertainment reporters have to put up with job instability and low pay. In some ways it’s no wonder some take such delight in reporting the demise of highly paid celebrities. Changes need to be made so the media are less dependent on the clicks salacious articles attract.

South Korea’s entertainment industry itself has to bear a lot of the responsibility. It treats celebrities as commodities from whom a few powerful agencies can squeeze as much income in as short a time as possible. Many celebrities are spotted as children and are not taught valuable life skills, only how to sing and dance. The situation is worse for female celebrities, with the public more interested in every salacious detail of their lives.

We also have to understand why people feel moved to post vicious comments online. Our freedom of speech and privacy laws that allow commenters to remain anonymous need updating. At the moment in South Korea, someone who urges another social media user to die is fined an average of just $2,000 for their first offence.

A well-known celebrity once approached me, offering to give me her “last interview”. She told me she had tried to kill herself several times. We ended up talking for three days. I told her I would conduct her last interview, but that it would not be for a very long time.

She was not the first celebrity to ask me to do this. I have given them the same answer every time: Spring doesn’t come to us from afar, but, even now, it is coming from beneath our feet. We were born without a reason, and we should keep on living without a reason.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/04/i-have-reported-on-30-korean-celebrity-suicides-the-blame-game-never-changes

 


Category: Korea

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