[Column] Witnesses to “silent massacre”

Posted on : 2021-05-17 17:12 KST Modified on : 2021-05-17 17:12 KST
The suicide rate of Koreans born in the 1990s, especially women, has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic
Cho Hae-jin
Cho Hae-jin

By Cho Hae-jin, author

You have probably heard of the expression “silent massacre.” This expression first gained media exposure and entered the public discourse in November last year after a YouTube video produced by “Slap,” the Hankyoreh’s gender media platform.

The video, titled “A Silent Massacre Has Started Again,” runs for just over 10 minutes and unmasks realities that we would rather ignore. The video notes that the suicide – and attempted suicide – rate of Koreans born in the 1990s, especially women, has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic and that one important reason behind this is unstable employment arrangements and poor labor conditions.

In the video, one researcher even expresses concern that the suicide rate among 90s kids is comparable to that of the post-war generation who lived through Japanese imperialism. The high suicide rate among Koreans born in the 90s will likely persist as they age.

I was reminded of a famous quote as I watched this video. “There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. Brought up in the conviction that life is the highest good and death the greatest dismay, we became witnesses and victims of worse terrors than death – without having been able to discover a higher ideal than life.” This excerpt, part of an essay written by political theorist Hannah Arendt in 1943, was quoted in Seo Gyeong-sik’s essay “Searching for Primo Levi, A Witness of the Times.”

Hope was a rare commodity in 1943 when World War II was nearing its end. It is a somber and bitter thought to imagine that in 2020, our precious young people are suffering to the same extent as the war and post-war generations of several decades ago.

Why a “silent” massacre?

Koreans who were born or spent their early childhoods during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 faced fiercer competition than ever during their schooldays and worked tirelessly to build up their resumes and earn qualifications.

However, just as they were about to enter society in the late 2000s, economic uncertainty had become entrenched, a financial crisis struck the world, and most of the entry-level positions on offer were temporary. The majority of 90s kids were unable to find a job commensurate with how hard they had worked, and women had to face gender-based prejudice on top of that, frequently viewed as mere “assistants” or “surplus” workers.

The video argues that Korean society viewed the failure of 90s kids to live “rewarding” lives as an individual rather than structural problem, and the state did not even attempt to find a solution. At present, many policies that purport to support young Koreans are contingent on going to university, finding a job, getting married and having children.

The frustration of 90s kids who cannot even begin down this path has been “quietly” disposed of, and the reaction to that frustration has also been subdued. Ultimately, this has come back to us in the form of irreversible deaths.

Some may say that job insecurity and suicidal urges are not limited to those born in the 1990s, arguing that the fragility of 90s kids compared to previous generations is also a problem. I am well aware that everyone living in the COVID-19 era struggles with some level of depression and frustration.

However, Korean society must acknowledge that the origins of this sad and cruel “silent massacre” do not lie in some particular weakness on the part of 90s kids. A signal that the community was willing to examine the problems faced by 90s kids and seek solutions together would at least give rise to a ray of hope.

Suicide is a “terror” imposed upon oneself rather than others. It is heartbreaking to see the final “silent” terror that many from this generation end up choosing. We cannot allow ourselves to remain mere witnesses to this self-destructive terror any longer. It’s time for us to share the burden.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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