South Korea has introduced “death experience” schools as a way to combat the country’s high suicide count. Statistics estimate that at least 40 people kill themselves in South Korea every day.
Jeong Yong-mun, a former funeral employee, tells his audience that the hardships they face “are a part of life” and to “accept them” while trying “to find joy in their hardships.”
The students lie in their coffin in traditional coffins while someone takes their picture. Then they compose a fake will or farewell letter, which they read to the group. Afterwards, the “‘Korean angel of death’ enters the room.” The Daily Mail reports:
The students lay down in their coffins before being sealed in by the angel, at which point they are faced by the crushing nothingness of the ever-after.
They are then left alone in the dark inside their coffins for at least 10 minutes, where they take time to contemplate life from an outsider’s perspective.
Students wake up afterwards and emerge from their coffins, where, they say, they feel ‘refreshed’ and ‘liberated’ from their troubles.
They are spoken to again by head of the centre Jeong Yong-mun: ‘You have seen what death feels like, you are alive, and you must fight!’
These people include children who feel they cannot handle the pressures to excel in school, parents dealing with an empty nest, and elderly who “who are terrified of being a financial burden on their young families.”
South Korea is the twelfth largest global economy, which changed their society. The traditional family unit is no longer a priority and fewer people believe they should help their elderly relatives.
In March, the education ministry developed a smartphone app that will “screen students’ social media posts, messages and web searches for words related to suicide.” It will then alert the parents if their child is considered a suicide risk. While some applauded the app, others criticized the ministry for not addressing the real issues, including intense academic pressures.
NPR reported in April that a school day ends at 4PM, but the students then attend “cram schools” to receive extra help. They do not usually leave until 11PM.
“The overriding impression was just a level of intensity I had never experienced at all,” explained Tom Owenby, who taught English and AP history classes in Seoul. “It’s not about finding your own path or your own self as it is about doing better than those around you. It’s in many ways a zero sum game for South Korean students.”
The majority of suicides occur in November during their college entrance exam. Planes do not fly in South Korea “for fear of disturbing the students.” These results determine which universities the student can attend. However, there are only three schools “considered top tier by future employers,” which means “the competition is fierce.”
“It’s kind of alarming actually. If young students [are] not happy, we cannot guarantee their happiness when they grow up, so our future will be really dark,” stated Kim Mee Suk, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “We don’t have enough natural resources; the only resources we have (are) human resources. So actually everybody equipped with higher education would be best for our country but not good for their own selves. So we have really a big dilemma.”
The films Reach for the SKY and 4th Place show the trauma and stress students place themselves under to reach those top three universities. SKY is an acronym for those schools: Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei Universities.
“Some people outside South Korea praise the achievement of our education system and the excellent math and science scores of our youngsters,” said Choi Woo-Young, co-director of Reach for the SKY. “But I wanted to show this reality in which less than one percent of teenagers can be winners and the rest call themselves miserable losers.”