Suicides at Korean college raise fears over academic hothousing

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The Independent Online

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.

Three other students have killed themselves since January at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which admits only the brightest students. The deaths of four young people might not normally attract much attention in a nation all too familiar with suicide. South Korea has one of the world's highest rates and the highest in the developed world. Several high-profile South Koreans, including the former president Roh Moo-hyun, have taken their own life in recent years.

"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 modernised, human relations have been subsequently cut, as people don't have friends to share their hardships and listen to their problems."

The obsession with academic success has even 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 at around 8am and finish around 4pm, but in some schools students are required to stay as late as 10pm. Many students turn to private tutoring. Some study with tutors until 2am before important exams.

Investigations are under way to determine what led the four students – all males aged between 19 and 25 – to kill themselves, 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.

"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!"

After taking over in 2006, Mr Suh ordered most of the classes to be taught in English, and financially penalised students with poor grades. Mr Suh defended his policies, saying smart students won't come to a university that doesn't challenge them.