A string of celebrity suicides in 2008 has sent shockwaves across the nation, gripping devout fans and raising fears of copycat suicides. The suicide of an iconic actress this year has also provoked political bickering over whether to penalize cyberspace libel.
A couple of high-profile rulings on mercy killing and adultery have also touched off heated national debates this year.
The most shocking of the suicide cases was the death of Choi Jin-sil
, Korea's long-beloved iconic actress.
On Oct. 2, Choi, 39, was found hanging in a shower stall at her residence in Seoul with a bandage tightened around her neck, ending her 20-year stellar career on the silver screen.
Her death came in the midst of internet rumors that she had lent billions of won to Ahn Jae-hwan
, a renowned actor, and then blackmailed him. Ahn also killed himself about a month before her death.
Choi had felt increasingly suicidal, with the persisting rumors deepening her depression and denting her confidence restored by a successful 2007 comeback in a tear jerking soap opera.
Her ugly divorce in 2004 with ex-husband, former pro baseball player Cho Sung-min, had tarnished her girlish pure image and led her to go on a hiatus.
Ahn was found dead on Sept. 8 in his minivan in Seoul, where he had locked himself in and burned two charcoal briquettes. He died from toxic fumes, according to police.
The actor had agonized over snowballing debts from a series of moribund businesses, which led him to desperately seek money, even from loan sharks, his close associates said.
Their deaths were followed by another string of high-profile suicides, including those by transgender actress Jang Chae-won, homosexual model Kim Ji-hu and former government official Kim Young-chul
in October and singer Lee Seo-hyun this month.
Choi's death had touched off a politically-charged debate on whether to tighten rules in cyberspace as her case was just the latest in a series of celebrity suicides apparently caused by cyber-bullying.
, an actress famed for her girlish image, was found hanging in her boyfriend's house in February last year. She apparently killed herself partially because of mental suffering from malicious internet messages directed at her.
Her death came immediately after pop singer Yuni hanged herself in January last year. Yuni had also been agitated by defamatory internet messages criticizing her plastic surgeries and personal life.
The ruling Grand National Party and the government have sought ways to combat cyberspace defamation, including criminalizing libel on the internet and expanding the mandatory use of real names on the internet.
Opposition parties, however, upbraided such moves, citing the possibility of hampering freedom of expression.
Celebrity deaths also prompted concerns about the so-called Werther effect, referring to copycat suicides. Such concerns turned into reality with reports of a few people killing themselves in the same way Choi did.
"Celebrities, in many cases, may have to stifle their emotions given that they are public figures. This makes them unfortunately accumulate and harbor their stress, triggering suicidal thoughts", said Min Sung-gil, a psychiatrist at the Severance Hospital in Seoul.
"Many tend to think that they cannot solve the problems, and may choose to kill themselves if famous figures were found to have committed suicide after suffering the same problems they have".
Ruling on mercy killing
The lawsuit filed by a family in May to have a Seoul hospital stop life-sustaining treatment for their 75-year-old mother has led society to question whether to allow those in a permanent vegetative state with no chance of recovery to have their life-sustaining machines turned off.
The family said treatment for their mother Kim Ok-kyung was "a meaningless act of life extension", and that Kim would have chosen to face natural death if given the conscious wish not to be artificially kept alive.
The Seoul Western District Court made the ruling on Nov. 28 to remove the respirator from Kim based on her previous statements, religious belief and conscious wishes to die naturally.
Severance Hospital, which has treated Kim for nearly eight months, said it will appeal the ruling.
Korea's penal code criminalizes any form of ending another's life as murder. Even with prior consent from patients or family members, withholding life-saving items such as water, food, medicine and a respirator can constitute a crime if a third person takes issue with it.
Previously, a local court convicted a wife and two doctors for letting a patient in critical condition leave the hospital without due medical treatment. In 1997, despite doctors' strong warnings, the wife demanded that the hospital release her 58-year-old husband suffering from a hematoma, or blood clot in his head, citing her poor economic situation.
Medical experts showed a generally positive response to the court ruling. Some say it is better to stop the meaningless extension of life for an unconscious patient with no hope of recovery, given the burden on patients and families.
Religious circles remain cautious, saying "No human being has the right to end his or her own life". They worry that if any form of euthanasia is given a green light by court, it could forge a society where people disregard life.
A high-profile adultery case involving a celebrity couple -- Park Cheol
and Ok So-ri -- has rekindled the debate on whether to repeal the law criminalizing extramarital affairs.
The Korean penal code defines adultery as a crime punishable by up to two years behind bars. Last week, a lower court handed Oak a suspended sentence of eight months in jail.
The Constitutional Court ruled in October that the decades-old adultery law is constitutional, its fourth ruling upholding the law. The court pointed to the initial purpose of the law, which it says is to safeguard marriages -- "the bedrock of society".
What is noteworthy about the ruling, however, is that there were more justices in the nine-justice court against the law than those in favor. Five justices ruled the law unconstitutional, but scrapping the law requires at least six to vote against it.
Since its enactment in 1953, a total of three rulings, excluding this year's, were made in 1990, 1993 and 2001. All of them were in favor of the law, saying that the protection of family values outweighs individuals' rights to make decisions about their sex lives.
Supporters of the law have argued that the law is a legal bulwark protecting family values in Korea which, they claim, has two-fold moral standards. Many believe that a man committing adultery is acceptable to an extent, but it is intolerable if committed by a woman, a legacy of Korea's long-revered Confucian values.
Before the nation was industrialized, women were wholly dependent on men's earnings, making marriage a crucial way for women to support themselves. But most modern women can now support themselves, making the adultery law increasingly obsolete, experts say.
Those against the law contend that it is inappropriate for the state to meddle in a person's sex life as it is an expression of emotion that cannot be legally stifled.
They also say the law has been abused as a means of revenge or to secure more alimony. Others argue the process of proving adultery cases has violated human rights.
By Song Sang-ho