South Koreans Baffled By Five Consecutive University Suicides

South Koreans are buzzing over recurring suicides at one prestigious university. The school's unique penalty tuition system, which was adopted by the President of the school, also came under fire for driving students to extreme stress, even to their deaths.

Four students and one professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology(KAIST), one of the nation’s top-tier universities, have committed suicide in the last three months. Local media outlets and KAIST’s students themselves have blamed the pressure of intense competition and especially KAIST’s unique penalty system, which charges students extra fees for underachievement, for contributing the suicides. The most recent suicide of a student took place on April 7. According to Korea Herald [en], a KAIST professor who had mentored the last victim recalled that his student had suffered from his unsatisfactory grades. On April 10, KAIST's one renowned professor who was being charged with embezzlement of research money was also found dead.

Image by Pi Magazine Photo Library, CC License, from Flickr site.

Penalty tuition

Twitterer Lee Dong-hoon's(@Mr_DongHoon) tweet[ko] summarized how the penalty system works.

카이스트.학점이 3.0이하로 떨어지면 0.01점당 63000원씩을 부과/학점 2.5면 약 300만원.이 더러운 벌금의 이름은 ‘수업료.’ […]

If the grade point falls below 3.0, the student is forced to pay 63 thousand Korean Won for each 0.01 point deficit. For example, if one gets 2.5 grade point, the fine would amount to 3 million Korean Won. This dirty, de-fecto fine is called ‘tuition’. […]

A dentist/professor, Lee Yun-jung (@eyunjung) tweeted [ko]:

카이스트 서남표 총장은 매우 이성적이고 합리적이지만 낙오자로 찍히는 고통을 모르는 것 같습니다”며 “학생들의 자살은 타인의 고통에 공감하지 못하는 이성이 얼마나 폭력적인지 보여줍니다. 광기는 이성의 결여이기도 하지만 이성의 극단이기도 합니다.

KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo may be very rational and reasonable man. But he has no idea of the pain people feel when they are picked as losers. Students’ suicides show how violent unsympathetic reason can become. [note: the word ‘reason’ used as ‘Reason’ versus ‘Emotion’] Madness comes from the lack of reason, but it also comes from the extreme of reason.

Mental Weakness? Calls for KAIST President to Resign

Right after the fourth suicide, President of KAIST, Suh Nam-pyo said in a press conference that the school will scrap its penalty system. But it was never enough to quell public concerns and ongoing debates. Korean net users are calling for Suh to step down since he was the one who had created the system in order to maximize the competition. They have even filed an online petition[ko] on the Daum Agora site, urging him to step down. Since KAIST is a university heavily supported by the government, Suh will also have to show up at a parliamentary questioning session on April 18 to explain about recent deaths.

Furthermore, Suh's inappropriate comments after the suicides have turned Korean people and even his supporters against him. On April 4, a few days after the third death, Suh posted a message [ko] on the school’s homepage, indirectly conveying his opinion that the suicide was a sign of mental weakness. Kyunghyang newspaper reported [ko]. that just two days before the fourth suicide, Suh said, ‘suicide rates in prestigious universities in the U.S are much higher than ours’, when a KAIST freshman who fights against the penalty system asked about the recurring suicides.

Cho Gook, Seoul National University’s law professor and one of the most influential Twitters (@patriamea) tweeted[ko]:

KAIST 학생이 네 명 자살한 후에야 서남표 총장은 ‘차등수업료제’ 폐지를 발표했다. 학생을 ‘공부기계'로 만들려고 수업료로 위협하며 비극을 낳게 한 장본인은 도의적 책임을 지고 물러나야 한다.

Only after four students had committed suicide, President Suh announced the scrapping of the system. He bears the responsibility for this tragedy which he had made by blackmailing the students with tuition fees and forcing them to become “study machines”.

After Cho received criticism regarding his call for Suh to step down, Cho tweeted [ko] another message, explaining why the resignation is necessary at this point:

서 총장만 물러가면 해결되냐고? 물론 아님. 서 총장에게 ‘원한'이 있냐고? 만나본 적도 없음. 그러나 사태의 최고책임자가 그대로 있는 상태에서는 아무리 탁월한 능력을 가진 KAIST 구성원들도 방향을 재설정하기란 어려움은 분명함.

Would Suh's withdrawal cure every problem? Of course not. Do I hold grudge against Suh? No. I never met the man before. But it is clear to me if KAIST leaves the Head, who has full responsibility for the whole situation, around any longer, anyone, even the most competent KAIST staff would have a hard time redirecting the school.

Systems Cause Suicides.

Some people, pointing out KAIST's unique status, assert KAIST students should take the stress for granted since they are being supported by the government and enjoy privileges while ordinary students have none of these benefits. KAIST is the university established by the Korean government as the nation's first science and engineering institution and it has received huge government financial and legal support ever since. Its students are exempt from military duty which all able-bodied Korean men are oblige to undertake. A Christian theologian, Hahm See-young (@Deraugustinus) pointed out [ko] this aspect.

카이스트는 국민세금으로 공부한다. 자기발전뿐만 아니라 국가와 민족을 위해 헌신해야 한다. […]학습량과 연구량 수준에서 볼 때 한반도대학은 구미선진국대학과 비교하면 너무 쉽게 졸업한다

KAIST students study from the people's tax money. It is their duty to study not only for personal development but for the nation and the Korean people. […] Compared to the amount of study and research other Western university students have to manage to graduate, Korean students graduate too easily.

South Korea is infamous for its education fever. As one of its side effects, the suicide rate, even among teens, is unprecedentedly high. It is estimated [ko] that three elementary school students, 53 junior highs and 90 high school students, totaling 146 students, have committed suicide in 2010 alone.

A net user ID: Suh Sang-hyun, who dropped out of KAIST in 2010, wrote [ko] in various public forum sites, accusing Korean society of its obsession with good diplomas.

“이 학교에서 우리는 불행하다” 대자보를 보고, “불행하면 자퇴하면 되지 않느냐”는 댓글을 읽고 몇 자 적습니다. 동의합니다. 자살할 만큼 불행하다면 자퇴(보통은 휴학)하는 것이 맞습니다. […]그럼에도 그러지 못하는 학생이 많은 것은 대학 졸업장을 중시하는 한국 사회의 문제입니다.[…]

After some people saw KAIST wall posters which read “In this school, we are not happy”, they have commented, ‘Why don't you drop out of the school, if you feel that unhappy?’. Seconded. It is right to drop out (or take leave) if you are that unhappy to even commit suicide. […] Nonetheless, since a college diploma is crucial in our society, people don't ever dare to do that.

President Suh had also adopted an intensive English course system which force almost every class to be delivered in English. Suh claimed this reform would increase the school's competitiveness, but there is even a professors’ collective movement against the 100 percent English-based class since in most cases, English classes has decreased students understanding level and muffled down active conversations between teachers and pupils. Blogger 격암(:Gyuk-Am) analyzed [ko] that the Korean education system has hit an impasse where a reform in any kind would be criticized, despite its necessity.

대학생들이 자살을 했고 카이스트에서 공부하는것이 힘들다는 이야기가 나올때 서남표총장을 비판하고 보다 경쟁이 없는 환경을 주문하는것은 쉬운일입니다. […] 결론적으로 말하자면 서남표총장의 개혁이 답은 아니라고 할지라도 대학으로서는 앞도 뒤도 막힌 것같은 상황인것도 사실이라는 겁니다. 느슨하게 하자니 망할것같고 채찍질을 하자니 부작용이 나오고 그런것이죠.

It is very easy to point fingers at President Suh Nam-pyo when hearing about students’ suicides and how tough it is to study in KAIST. And it is easy to ask for a less competitive study environment instead. […] In conclusion, even if it is fairly true to say that Suh's education reform is not the right way, but still, the universities are stuck in a stalemate where neither card works. When you get too loose, you feel left behind, and when you whip students hard, then side effects spring up.

To boost students morale, KAIST has decided to give students two days off from April 11 to 12 and encouraged them to have conversation with professors, a tepid measure with many doubting its effectiveness.

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Please visit to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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