Published : 2013-09-16 20:20
Updated : 2013-09-16 20:20
Koreans will be hitting the road in just a few days to get together with their families in their hometowns during the Chuseok holidays that run Wednesday through Friday. Nearly 60 percent of the country’s 50 million people are forecast to make trips this week to spend time with parents, children and siblings.
More dramatic and emotional family reunions are set to take place next week when 100 people each from South and North Korea will meet their relatives separated across the border for the past six decades at the Mount Geumgangsan resort in the North’s eastern coast. Among the heartbreaking scenes will be an encounter between a 95-year-old woman from the South and her sister, 80, from the North.
This season for family gatherings may well serve as an occasion for us to rethink the decaying values of family and renew our attention to problems that stem from its weakening function or dissolution.
There may be an argument that traditional family perceptions still remain stronger in Korea than in other advanced countries, as shown by its rates of marriage and extramarital birth, which are respectively far higher and lower than the averages of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the weakening and dissolving of the traditional family structure has become an obvious phenomenon that is continuing to deepen. Marriages have been decreasing while divorces have been on the rise, though the pace of change has slowed recently. The number of single-member households has been increasing rapidly, with three-generation families now a rarity.
The unraveling of the traditional system means our society can no longer rely on a family’s useful function as a basic unit to provide protection and care for its members. Coupled with insufficient efforts by the government and civic organizations to build a social safety net, this phenomenon has brought about a set of serious problems that must be addressed in an urgent manner.
According to a report recently released by a local research institute, a quarter of elderly Koreans aged over 70 live alone and have no contact with their children. One in three contacts their offspring only once or twice a year, with less than 1 percent in touch almost daily. Their solitary life is made more difficult by poverty. Government statistics show the poverty and suicide rates of aged Koreans rank highest among OECD member states. Nearly half of Koreans aged 65 and older live in poverty and more than 160 per 100,000 Koreans aged 75 and above commit suicide every year.
In another reflection of family dysfunction, the number of suicides per 100,000 teenagers rose by 57.2 percent from 3.19 in 2001 to 5.58 in 2011, with most of the cases attributed to family troubles and school grades. About 100,000 adolescents are estimated to have run away from home.
To our concern, public support schemes still fall far short of replacing the traditional roles of the family. With the ratio of welfare spending to the gross domestic product standing at about 70 percent of the OECD average, the government has faced strong resistance from middle-income earners to increasing taxes to finance more social benefits. Trust in political circles and the bureaucracy should be enhanced by eliminating corruption and boosting transparency to change this negative public attitude.
Improving our society requires both tightening the social safety net and restoring the positive function of the family. It is hoped that family gatherings during the Chuseok holidays will serve to remind people of the values a healthy and happy family life brings to society.