There are dark sides of Korean society, some that can normally be seen only in underdeveloped countries. They include the high suicide rate and frequent traffic and industrial accidents.
A short list of statistics shows you the gravity of the situation, which hardly befits a country whose economy is fourth-biggest in Asia and whose per capita gross domestic product is soon to reach $30,000.
In 2016, Korea’s suicide rate stood at 25.6 per 100,000 people, with 13,092 people taking their own lives. It is 2.4 times the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The fact that one Korean commits suicide every 40 minutes makes it easier to grasp how serious things are. Then there are some other key facts -- suicide is the No. 1 cause of deaths among those in their teens, 20s and 30s, and the suicide rate among senior citizens is more than double the average of all age groups.
Figures for traffic and industrial accidents also paint a dismal picture in Korea. The number of people who died in car accidents in 2016 was 4,292, and 969 people lost their lives in industrial accidents. The car accident rate, which stood at 9.1 per 100,000 in 2015, the most recent year for which OECD statistics are available, ranked Korea in the 31st place among the 35 members of the club of the advanced economies.
The good news is that the government has set out to tackle the problems related to the suicide rate and car and industrial accidents by launching a package of programs. Officials aptly called the package the “project for protecting the people’s lives.”
The project, which was worked out in conjunction with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, aims to reduce the suicide rate by 30 percent and both the traffic and industrial accidents by 50 percent by 2022.
As Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo admitted, achieving the goal would not be easy. But more important is that politicians and officials are now paying attention to the issue and try to approach it from a broader policy perspective than in the past.
That is important because the number of people who take their own lives or encounter tragic deaths on the roads and at work mirrors the quality of life and level of public safety in a society.
As a matter of fact, Korea ranks low in indexes gauging well-being, happiness and quality of life. For instance, the biennial OECD report on well-being put Korea nearly at the bottom in categories like health status and work-life balance.
Indeed, it would be difficult to call a place in which one person takes life every 40 minutes and innocent people and workers fall victims to preventable deaths a happy society to live in.
There are many ways and tasks to make the society a happier and safer one. But the goal cannot be accomplished by the government single-handed.
Take as example the government plan to designate a group of one million as “gatekeepers” to spot and assist potential suicide victims. Such a service would be not succeed without active support participation of other members of society like civic organizations and religious groups.
Likewise, the government plan to reduce speed limits for vehicles and toughen the crackdown on drunken driving to reduce the traffic fatalities cannot succeed if the notorious driving culture -- like reckless driving and road rage -- in the country changes.
It is the same with the project to curb industrial accidents, for which businesses need to awaken to the importance of protecting the lives and safety of workers.
It is right that the government to take the initiative in addressing the three problems. Equally important is that government efforts alone cannot achieve the objective and all the members of the society should line up to make it a better place to live in.