Doctrine divides, Action unites


  March 2014

Instead of the elderly in South Korea enjoying their
lives, increasing numbers of them are taking their
own lives often because they see little hope of
escaping their poverty.
(Photo from


Individualizing Traditional Values Fails to Break the Chain of Poverty in South Korea

Asian Human Rights Commission

A mother and her two daughters were found dead in Seoul on Feb. 26. According to the media, they committed suicide due to poverty. The mother had been working in a restaurant for a living since her husband passed away 12 years ago. Because of a chronic disease, the woman’s two daughters worked part time and gave up their medical treatment. In January, the 61-year-old mother injured her arm, thus making her incapable of continuing to work. As a last resort of seeking relief from their poverty, they decided to commit suicide. They left a short note which said, “To landlord . . ., we are sorry. Here is last rental payment and public imposts. We are deeply sorry.”

This incident raised doubts on whether the national basic livelihood security system is appropriate to protect those who suffer from poverty in the absence of an established national social safety net. These three people were among the most disadvantaged and marginalized individuals, and they should have been categorized as strong candidates for this program and entitled to be protected by such a social security system. In fact, relevant legislation, the so-called National Basic Living Security Act, aimed at guaranteeing a minimum standard of living and providing self-support for those who are in need, exists. Reportedly, the three women did not have access to the program provided by this law. It seems that they were unaware of such a social security system. They might too have failed to be protected by this law due to administrative failures, or they might have chosen not to do so for some unknown reasons. If it is the former two, then the question must be raised about whether marginalized individuals and groups are well protected under this legislation.

In connection to this incident, it is alarming that the suicide rate of the elderly who are more than 65 years old has increased four times in recent years. Many suicidal cases of the elderly have been reported. Their last will left behind expresses the frustration that they were left out of the protection of such a law on the grounds that one of their adult children had a job, meaning that they were able to take care of their elderly parents. It is a traditional value in Korean society that adult children have a duty to support their parents once they are grown up. This value has been incorporated into national policy as well as the law that obliges adult children to support their parents. For this reason, the elderly, who do not want to lean on or give any financial burden to their children, commit suicide rather than be supported by them or force them to witness their suffering if they are left out of the protection of such a policy or law. Obviously, this predicament will have more of an impact on a household with a disabled person. Thus, the system established for the protection of the most disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups has played a negative role in adding to the problems of the people it is trying to help due to traditional values. Those who cannot bear poverty cannot help but to make an extreme decision.

It was announced that one of the top priorities of the current government is to find out where is the leakage of the government budget allocated for welfare and to punish those responsible for misusing this budget. Regarding its implementation, the relevant government ministries set up a task force and began a 100-day-long campaign to eradicate this leakage in which people receive welfare benefits who are not entitled to them. In early February, many “successful” stories were reported in the media. In fact, the budget wrongly paid to the marginalized was so trivial compared to the achievements of the program. Clearly, the government seems to have either failed to see through its initiative to address the leakage drawbacks in the program or has overlooked the real problem underpinning its policy and this law.

To those who have sacrificed themselves to support their family members and who have made an enormous contribution to the economic growth of Korean society, it is time for the government and all political parties to show their respect and appreciation. Furthermore, it is time to change the traditional value system and move toward sustainable values for the development of society. The traditional value of the duty to support one’s parents should no longer lie in the hands of one’s adult children but should rather rest in those of the government. If not everyone, then the government should begin at least to address the needs of those who are the most disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups in society. This change, in fact, is a promise to maintain and nurture the traditional values of taking care of others rather than individualizing them by imposing a legal duty on the impoverished to support the more impoverished. This different approach will be the cornerstone to break the chain of poverty in society and provide more opportunity for the marginalized to help toward their own self-support in the long term. It is only when there is a new national mindset that these sort of tragic incidents will be prevented.

* The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is a regional non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984. More information is available on AHRC’s web site at <>.

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