By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — Even with the explosive growth of suicides in South Korea, the case of the 78-year-old widow was shocking enough to merit attention in the recent presidential election and hand-wringing in the news media.
Rather than quietly taking her life at home as many South Koreans do, the woman staged her death as a final act of public protest against a society she said had abandoned her. She drank pesticide overnight in front of her city hall after officials stopped her welfare checks, saying they were no longer obligated to support her now that her son-in-law had found work.
“How can you do this to me?” read the suicide note that the police said they had found in a purse next to her body. “A law should serve the people, but it didn’t protect me.”
The woman’s death is part of one of South Korea’s grimmest statistics: the number of people 65 and older committing suicide, which has nearly quadrupled in recent years, making the country’s rate of such deaths among the highest in the developed world. The epidemic is the counterpoint to the nation’s runaway economic success, which has worn away at the Confucian social contract that formed the bedrock of Korean culture for centuries.
That contract was built on the premise that parents would do almost anything to care for their children — in recent times, depleting their life savings to pay for a good education — and then would end their lives in their children’s care. No Social Security system was needed. Nursing homes were rare.
But as South Korea’s hard-charging younger generations joined an exodus from farms to cities in recent decades, or simply found themselves working harder in the hypercompetitive environment that helped drive the nation’s economic miracle, their parents were often left behind. Many elderly people now live out their final years poor, in rural areas with the melancholy feel of ghost towns.
Such social shifts are not uncommon in the industrialized world. But the sudden change has proved especially wrenching in South Korea, where parents view their sacrifices as the equivalent of a pension plan and where those who are suffering are falling victim to changes they themselves helped unleash as they rebuilt the economy from the devastation of the Korean War.
“The family was always an extended self,” said Park Ji-young, a professor of social welfare at Sangji University in Wonju. “Children were everything they had for their future — for health care, financial support and a comfortable life in old age. Their children’s success was their success.”
Making matters harder for the elderly, the government has been caught by surprise by the quick erosion of the traditional family structure.
The government began building a public pension system in 1988, but people say that in most cases the payments barely cover basic living costs, and many of the oldest South Koreans are not covered because they were past working age when the system was created. A government report in 2011 said that only 4 of every 10 people over 65 had a public or private pension or retirement savings.
And as the woman who poisoned herself in August discovered, the law denies welfare to people whose children are deemed capable of supporting them. That leaves some parents the humiliating choice of asking for help from their children or their government, which can grant exemptions if they can prove their children are unwilling or unable to help. In a country that puts great value on retaining face, experts on the elderly say that is a painful choice. Professor Park said some kill themselves because they feel betrayed; others are driven by a fear of harming their family’s chances of getting ahead.
They are succeeding at alarming rates; the suicides among people 65 or older ballooned to 4,378 in 2010, from 1,161 in 2000. The number of suicides among other adults and teenagers also surged, though those deaths are generally attributed to the stress of living in a highly competitive society rather than the changes in the family structure that are driving the elderly to despair.
Until the country’s rapid-fire industrialization in the late 1900s, South Korean life followed a well-trod path. Parents lived with their eldest son’s family — parents without a son often adopted one from a relative, which also continued the male lineage of the family — and sacrifices were rewarded.
Historically, towns would erect monuments to their “filial children,” and some rural towns still award prizes, like televisions or cash, to solicitous adult children.
As the chances for riches grew in recent years, parents began going to lengths to try to ensure their children’s success, and by extension their family’s, that make other countries’ versions of helicopter parenting seem tame.
Some parents, the “edu poor,” drained their savings to pay for cram schools that operate after regular school and on weekends. A growing number of families even split up for years so the mothers can take their children abroad to become fluent in English, which is crucial to getting good jobs at big corporations.
The fathers of many of South Korea’s crop of golf prodigies, meanwhile, often leave their jobs to become their children’s financial managers.
Many parents also drastically draw down savings accounts to help pay for their children’s homes. The country’s biggest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, railed in an editorial against “this ludicrous custom where parents sell their future to support their children.”
Other newspapers and advocates for the elderly have also begun to call more loudly for change, with the mass-circulation daily Dong-A Ilbo using the case of the woman who poisoned herself to suggest the government provide more assistance. “Our society’s family system is disintegrating too fast to require children to support their old parents,” an editorial said.
The tearing away at the family has become enough of an issue that a novel on the topic, “Please Look After Mom,” has become one of the country’s biggest-selling books in years.
The government says it is trying to help, proposing a higher retirement age so people can save more money, but that is a tough sell amid rising youth unemployment. It also began mandating that municipalities set up suicide prevention centers for all ages, and those offices have claimed some successes.
Kim Man-jeom, 73, was one. After her husband died in 2011, she was dismayed that her sons did not invite her to live with them, but she also dreaded becoming a burden. “When I saw a necktie, I considered hanging myself,” she said in an interview. She was saved, she says, by an empathetic social worker.
But in a telling sign that the root cause of distress — the fraying of the social fabric — has not been dealt with systematically, a small but growing number of elderly Koreans are dying with no one to claim them or perform the traditional rituals thought to ease their way in the afterlife.
Kim Seok-jung, who started a company in the southern city of Pusan to care for their belongings, says he is haunted by the case of a 73-year-old whose body was found last February, months after her death.
“The calendar on her wall stopped at October,” Mr. Kim said. “When I see these old people, I see how my own generation will die.”