South Korean Culture: Embarrassment, Suicide and T.O.P [OPINION]

At the time of this article’s publication, Star News confirmed that T.O.P, a member of one of South Korea’s most widely known idol groups BIGBANG, is now conscious and his vital signs are stable. The artist, born Choi Seunghyun, has an array of information about him on the Internet as it is, especially due to recent events. Therefore, I am not here to speak about it directly. Instead, I would like to share some brief knowledge about South Korean culture, embarrassment and suicide. (Because some of you think riches erases emotional pain.)

For those of you who know me “only” as a K-pop fangirl, more specifically one who refers to T.O.P as her ultimate bias, this will be a tone you have never experienced from me. For others who are more acclimated due to my work at past KCONs or via Twitter, I look forward to your thoughts after you read this. Additionally, points of research are referenced within this article.

South Korea is historically a culture that believes in collective impressions and harmony. It is considered a feminine culture, due to its inclination to negotiate versus fight, and to, in layman’s term, pity itself and others. Embarrassment is a way of life. It isn’t an occasional experience, it IS the experience. Riches shouldn’t be flaunted, prosperity “hidden” and mental disease/illness? It is to be swept under all rugs, much the same as the blatant disregard for LGBTQ+ citizens, but that’s another story.

Anything that embarrasses the family is unacceptable. The shame of embarrassment is often greater than the punishment. To add to this, Korean ethnic nationalism and the consideration that they are “of one,” or all family. Such a thing as political bribery is more expected and excused than a person living their life independently of this mindset, least you embarrass the Family.

So what does one do when they are a young person in a small country that has a history of being occupied by larger nations that favor suicide as an escape? What does one do, or know any differently from a cultural standpoint—not ethical standpoint—when suicide is a part of your nation’s DNA? Well, you do not consider it as another avenue of pain for your family (although it certainly will be), but instead, you see it as an end to their embarrassment. And that is how you justify making the decision to attempt it. That is how you heal the pity and pain.

We have zero facts about the personal decisions of Choi Seunghyun—he currently cannot speak for himself. We don’t know the full extent of his emotional turmoil. We do not know if this was or wasn’t a suicide attempt, but what we do have is data that supports much speculation. We do know cultural/anthropological information, and we undoubtedly know that money cannot fix everything in life.

As a journalist, it is not in anyone’s best interest that we speculate facts, nor is it in anyone’s best interest that we speculate about someone’s mental or physical health for those eager for more details. Therefore, as a contributor to digital media, I call out publications for sensationalizing this man’s circumstances. Likewise, I question those within my entertainment niche, those who view our YouTube channels as a platform, who have nothing to say about any portion of this unsettling Hallyu Wave fandom experience. Many netizens, myself included, shout to the high heavens that the Internet is fully accessible in South Korea and open to research things about many cultures they appropriate. Just as they have the capacity to educate themselves, we have a responsibility to research their culture. I say that to address this: Suicide is understood differently in different parts of the world. We can only hope and/or pray for the best for T.O.P.

I encourage you to look some things up in the meantime. I obviously have. After all, I can’t make Hallyu Wave my business without knowing the business.

(Image via, Channel News AsiaStarNews [Translation by Soompi].)

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