How Korea got the highest suicide rate in the world and why remote work may solve it

I’m making a documentary called “One Way Ticket”, a story about digital nomads. There are several reasons why I decided to make this documentary. First, let’s start by talking about my country, South Korea, the place where I was born and grew up.

 

Korea’s annual work hours

I’m originally from South Korea; a country with one of the highest annual work hours, at 2200 hours worked per year among 124 OECD countries (OECD iLibrary). Korea has been number one in this statistic and only recently, Mexico beat Korea to win first place.

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The concept of work and life balance in Korea doesn’t exist. Leaving the office at the time described in your contract is considered a lack of commitment to your employer. And these long hours are not efficient at all. Korea’s productivity is actually one of the lowest in the world too.

“The Korean workforce all know that they will be expected to work overtime hours whether they have worked or not – it’s again another test of perception and loyalty so what naturally occurs is Parkinson’s law. Why finish your work by 5 o’clock when you know you will be at the office until 10 anyways?”

Michael Kocken writes about Korea’s low productivity on his blog. He’s got the point there.

I was born, grew up and lived in Korea for almost 20 years, and still I see most of my Korean friends are struggling with their job, suffer from all kinds of hierarchy, over time and dreadful holiday policies.

By labor laws, working hour should be 8 hours or less a day, over time should be based on a reasonable cause and it should be paid 1.5 times more.

By labor laws, all employees deserve 15 days paid holiday a year.

But it’s socially well-accepted for employers to ignore the labor laws. Most employees don’t even claim their legitimate rights, because they are scared about losing their job. And due to the high demand for jobs, it makes employees easily replaceable.

Korea only has 15 paid holiday days per year. But you’re lucky if you can spend any of those days. The average Korean employee only takes up 7 days of of holiday per year, according to a survey conducted by Expedia.

The Asia-Pacific vacation breakdown follows:

The Asia-Pacific vacation breakdown

Korea’s suicide rate remains top in OECD

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South Korea’s suicide rate remained the highest among OECD countries for 10 consecutive years, from 2002 to 2012, according to recent OECD data. Suicide is the No.1 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30. And no matter what the age, many Koreans see suicide as a viable escape from the stresses of modern life, hard working with poor rewards, and too much social pressure.

South Koreans are under enormous pressure to succeed at work, school and in relationships, and to care for their families, fueling an abysmal suicide rate that is the highest in the OECD group of developed countries. About 40 Koreans commit suicide every day, making it the nation’s fourth-highest cause of death in 2012.
– Why South Koreans are killing themselves in droves, Salon

After the Second World War, there was little left of the Korea. The generations after the war have worked so hard and dedicated their entire lives to build everything from scratch. And it’s resulted in one of the fastest growing countries which has developed to a first-world economy in a short time.

This cultural heritage causes severe pressure on Koreans. Pursuing their own happiness is considered a dereliction of duty and a selfishness. As a result, literally suicide is everywhere in Korea. It makes me keep thinking about work-life balance, and how to pursue personal happiness while working so much.

 

Unbeatable ICT infrastructure

Korea swings between the twin poles of the leading-edge information computer technology and an asceticism. I love my current life being on the road, but I do miss Korea when I’m faced with poor internet speed overseas. Korea’s technology infrastructure is years ahead of other developed markets; almost 80% of the country has smartphones, and internet speeds average a very fast 60 MBPS (In the US it’s a paltry 10 MBPS). Decent public WiFi is literally everywhere, including on public transport and remote islands.

internet speed in Korea

“Here’s a speed test I conducted at a coffee shop in Seoul using its free WiFi”
Internet Speeds In South Korea Really Do Blow Away The Rest Of The World by Steve Kovach, Business Insider

South Korea is not a big country, going from the south to the north end takes only 4 hours or less by car. My country doesn’t have any significant amount of natural resources, and due to North Korea, geometrically this country is an isolated island.

Talented people and technology are the only things Korea has. That’s why former Korean government authorities have put a lot of effort into ICT infrastructure. Recently the government’s policy has shifted toward tech startups. In 2013, the Korean government launched the new Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning. For 2014, the ministry’s budget increased to more than 12 billion USD, with over two billion going directly into fostering growth for the startup ecosystem. Along with an extraordinary infrastructure and financial support from each social factor, the Korean startup scene has rapidly grown and many talented developers and designers have appeared from this scene.

Technology gives us an extreme amount of freedom. A majority of tech jobs can be done from anywhere. Korea has a big talent pool of qualified tech workers, but most of them are still struggling in unpleasant working environments without any balance between life and work. Even worse, some of them decide to kill themselves. This is a horrible tragedy and irony.

 

Conclusion

I think it’s an information problem, more than anything. And I realized this is not only happening in my home country, but also in almost every developed countries. There are many people who have abilities good enough to get a job where allows them to work remotely. If you see technical workers in Korea such as developers or designers, in terms of working skills they are well-prepared to live freely as a digital nomad. If they learn that actually they can live and work from anywhere, and if we can remove the social stigma around it, I think we can make many people’s lives much better.

That’s why I decided to make this documentary on digital nomads. And yes, I will make a Korean subtitle as well for my friends!

 

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