It may be normal for the number of elderly crimes to increase in an aging society. Korea is no exception to this phenomenon, with the proportion of aged people in its population rising at the fastest pace in the world.
What differentiates Korea from other societies is that it has seen a sharp increase in felonies by the elderly. Over the past decade, the number of robbery and rape cases committed by senior citizens has grown fourfold, government figures show. Arson and murder have also increased by 2.7 times and twofold, respectively.
Another alarming statistic is that about 60 percent of elderly offenders did not have criminal records before committing their crimes.
The issue of elderly crime drew attention again last month when two men aged 81 and 71 were arrested separately for setting fire to a provincial nursing home and a subway train in Seoul.
Experts attribute the increase in elderly crime here largely to financial difficulties and a feeling of isolation. Better physical conditions are also cited as a reason for the growing number of offenses committed by senior citizens.
The poverty ratio of people aged 65 and above stands at 48.5 percent in Korea, the highest in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a possible reflection of their hardships, the suicide rate of elderly Koreans is also the highest among major advanced nations. More than 80 out of 100,000 people aged 65 and older committed suicide here in 2010, compared with an OECD average of 20.9.
Given that the reasons cited by experts are common in most aging societies, one wonders why Korea has seen particularly high levels of felonies and suicide among elderly citizens.
An explanation is that Korean elderly men are especially frustrated with and have more difficulty adapting to the rapid demise of the patriarchal culture amid the collapse of the traditional extended family system. This phenomenon, coupled with their short-tempered nature and anger with what they consider to be improper treatment, may cause some aged people to take extreme actions.
But the more fundamental factor behind elderly problems here may be the lack of an effective social system to provide support for them at a time when traditional family roles cannot be relied upon.
The senior citizens being driven into a corner today were the ones who made it possible for the country to ascend from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War and become a major global economic power. As their contributions helped bring about its current prosperity, Korean society has the obligation to do all it can to help ease the predicament of the elderly.
More serious efforts should be made to implement a set of policies to tighten the social safety net for impoverished and ailing senior citizens. True, expanding benefits for the elderly in an aging society with a decreasing workforce may be easier said than done. The country’s ratio of older dependents aged 65 and above to the working-age population aged 15-64 is forecast to increase from 15 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2030 and further to 70 percent in 2050.
Building a sustainable system of support under this demographic constraint requires effective policies to boost the overall productivity of the economy and accept more skillful immigrant workers. Well-designed programs are also needed to provide senior citizens with more opportunities to land jobs in which they can use their experience.