Pictured above: The National Intelligence Service Headquarters in Seoul. (Screenshot captured via JTBC/YouTube)
by KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean government agent who was found dead in an apparent suicide left a note denying suspicion that the National Intelligence Service has been spying on South Koreans by intercepting cellphone and computer conversations, police said Sunday.
The 46-year-old NIS agent was found dead Saturday in his car parked on a hill in Yongin, just south of Seoul.
In his note revealed by police on Sunday, the agent said that the intelligence service “really didn’t” spy on civilians or on political activity related to elections. He apologized to colleagues and NIS senior officials, including director Lee Byoung Ho, saying that overzealousness in doing his job might have created “today’s situation.”
The intelligence service told lawmakers on Tuesday it had purchased hacking programs capable of intercepting communication on mobile devices and computers in 2012 from an Italian company, Hacking Team, but that it used them only to monitor agents from rival North Korea and for research purposes.
The revelation is sensitive because the NIS has a history of illegally tapping South Koreans’ private conversations. The NIS is planning to reveal to lawmakers the details of how the programs were used to quell suspicions that it had been unlawfully monitoring civilians.
In the note he left behind, the agent also said that he destroyed surveillance material on the activity of North Korean agents because the data had created “misunderstandings.”
Police officials, who had initially refused to release the details of the note, didn’t reveal the name of the agent or what his duties were for the NIS. Phone calls to the NIS office rang unanswered Sunday.
The controversy surrounding NIS emerged earlier this month when a searchable library of a massive email trove stolen from Hacking Team, released by WikiLeaks, showed that South Korean entities were among those dealing with the firm.
Two NIS directors who successively headed the spy service from 1999 to 2003 were convicted and received suspended prison terms for overseeing the monitoring of cellphone conversations of about 1,800 of South Korea’spolitical, corporate and media elite.
On Thursday, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a new trial for another former spy chief convicted of directing an online campaign to smear a main opposition candidate in the 2012 presidential election, won by current President Park Geun-hye.
In 2000,Hong Seok-cheon was at the height of his career. The South Korean actor had starred in the wildly popular sitcom Three Guys and Three Girls, was host of a primetime variety show and even had his own radio program. Then came a surprise announcement: while appearing on a Korean talk show, Hong revealed he was gay.
In South Korea, the response to the actor’s coming out was immediate and harsh. He was fired from his hosting and acting gigs and received multiple death threats. As he later told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, Hong struggled with the fallout: he started to drink heavily and at one point contemplated suicide. Still, after years of hiding in the closet, something clicked for the actor, who was the first South Korean celebrity to openly acknowledge he was gay. “If I think I’m right, even though other people are against something, I get upset. And I fight,” he told the Times.
For Kim Ji-hoo, a well-known fashion model in South Korea, the fight was short-lived. In 2007, Kim came out as gay. He was immediately fired from all his upcoming fashion shows and TV appearances. Two years later, the 23-year-old committed suicide by hanging himself at his home, leaving behind a suicide note stating that he was lonely and in a difficult situation.
Spreading awareness about gay identity in South Korea’s conservative society is not easy; homosexuality is neither openly discussed nor acknowledged. Even today, years after Hong’s admission and Kim’s death at such a young age, identifying as gay is still considered taboo in South Korea—and among the Korean community in the U.S. as well.
In my line of work in the medical profession, I continue to come across Asians from the older generation who tell me they believe homosexuality is caused by a mental illness. Others with strong religious beliefs share that they cannot support their gay loved ones because homosexuality is “a sin.”
Just like any minority in any society, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community often experiences prejudice, discrimination, harassment and violence. Some LGTBQ members are even shunned from their religious groups or families. For those living in an already conservative culture such as that of South Korea, or for Korean Americans here in the U.S., this often causes confusion, loneliness, stress and guilt. This exacerbates the already high rates of mental health issues within the LGBTQ community.
Consider these statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
• LGBTQ adults are two to three times more likely to sufferfrom anxiety and depression compared with the general population, while LGBTQ youth (ages 10-24) are six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression.
• Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ adults are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.
• Twenty to 30 percent of LGBTQ individuals abuse drugs and alcohol, compared with about 9 percent of the general population.
Since May is Mental Health Month, and June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual Pride Month, I write this column in the hopes of encouraging those who identify as LGBTQ and are struggling with stress, depression, anxiety or relationship conflicts to not grapple with such issues alone. There is no issue too big or too small to discuss with a therapist or psychiatrist. Whether it’s simply talking about your emotions, developing coping skills to manage stress or getting something off your chest, a mental health provider can serve as an important source of support and help for you.
Since having a strong support system is invaluable, I also hope this column encourages parents and family members to keep the lines of communication open. According to NAMI, LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide compared with those whose families are accepting of their sexual orientation or choice to identify as a particular gender. No matter how you feel internally, it’s important to remain loving, respectful and empathetic.
Coming out can be a challenging and stressful process for anyone. The journey can be especially difficult when those around you don’t understand who you are or what makes you happy. Though there is still much work to be done to educate the Korean American, and broader Asian American, community about LGBTQ-related issues, I am optimistic that we will make progress. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember we are all human beings who deserve love and respect despite our differences, including our sexual orientation.
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For more information, visit: Youth Resource at www.youthresource.com; PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) at www.pflag.org; the GLBT National Hotline at 1-888-THE-GLNH; or the Rainbow Youth Hotline at 1-877-LGBT-YTH.
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Dr. Esther Oh, a psychiatrist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, writes a regular mental health column for KoreAm. If you have questions, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be strictly confidential and only accessed by Dr. Oh. Opinions expressed here represent those solely of the author.
This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).
A 24-year-old South Korean soldier shot and killed two fellow reservists and injured two others before turning the gun on himself earlier Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The shooter, surnamed Choe, was participating in a mandatory training session with fellow reservists. Choe had fired one round when he suddenly turned his K-2 rifle on them and fired seven times. He then used the ninth out of the 10 bullets he had been given to kill himself.
Army officials said the two reservists who died were shot in their heads; one died while being transported to the hospital, while the other succumbed to his injury shortly after arriving. Choe was also a reservist who had finished his compulsory military training: All able-bodied men in South Korea are required to serve two years in the armed forces and then participate in annual military training in the reserve force for eight years, up to a max of 160 hours per year.
Yonhap News reported that Choe was put in a group of soldiers who needed “special attention” during his active service due to high risk of suicide and had received treatment for depression. In a suicide note found in his pocket following the shooting, Choe had written that life was meaningless and that he had suffered during his time in the military.
“Tomorrow, I will do shooting practice. … I am becoming obsessed with thinking that I want to kill them all and I want to die,” the note read.
Bullying and Tragic Deaths in the South Korean Military
There have been a number of incidents in recent years by South Korean soldiers at army barracks that have prompted concerns and criticism about social issues in the military, including bullying, abuse, sexual harassment and proper awareness of mental health conditions. According to statistics by the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, the army saw an average of 82.2 suicides a year between 2009-13.
An army sergeant in his 20s who went on a shooting rampage and killed five and wounded seven others in June 2014 had also been categorized as needing “special attention.” He later told investigators he had taken offense after discovering his colleagues’ drawings that portrayed him as various cartoon characters, including SpongeBob SquarePants.
In April 2014, a South Korean private died of asphyxiation after allegedly choking on food while being beaten by fellow soldiers, and two soldiers died last September during an anti-captivity training exercise, presumably due to suffocation. A female officer committed suicide in October 2013, and a South Korean military investigation determined that she had suffered repeated sexual harassment while on active duty.
Compulsory military service has become a contentious issue in itself. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday urging South Korea to end the imprisonment of around 600 men for draft-dodging. These “conscientious objectors” had been unfairly labeled as criminals, the report said, and the men faced “harsh consequences,” including abuse and discrimination, after their release because of their refusal to serve. Many of the objectors cite reasons based on their religious faith
South Korean officials have maintained that the mandatory service must remain in place as long as North Korea poses a military threat. In 2007, the Ministry of Defense considered alternatives to military service, but any ideas were scrapped once Lee Myung-bak became president the next year. Lee took a hard line stance towards North Korea, and current president Park Geun-hye has largely continued a similar policy.
Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo of South Korea formally resigned on Monday amid growing suspicions that he accepted an illegal cash donation from a businessman, reports the New York Times.
Lee offered to step down from his position last week, just two months after taking South Korean government’s No. 2 post. He is the second prime minister to resign under President Park’s rule. His predecessor, Chung Hong-won, had resigned after the Sewol ferry disaster.
“I have a heavy heart for leaving many things to be done to you and not completing the mission given to me,” Lee said in a brief farewell speech.
The prime minister has been at the center of a bribery scandal involving a the late construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong and eight high-profile political figures, mostly close associates of Park. Before committing suicide earlier this month, Sung, who was facing arrest on corruption charges, told a local newspaper that he gave 30 million won ($27,390) to Lee when he was running for a parliamentary seat in 2013.
Police also found a handwritten note inside Sung’s pocket that listed names of several government officials, including Lee, alongside numbers that allegedly indicate bribery sums.
Lee strongly denied bribery allegations, but the ruling Saenuri party pressured him to resign. According to Yonhap News Agency, the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, also threatened to impeach the prime minister over the scandal.
President Park accepted Lee’s resignation on Monday after returning from her South American tour. However, she has yet to announce Lee’s replacement.
The bribery scandal is a huge blow to Park’s government, which is still struggling to recover from public criticism of its poor handling of last April’s ferry disaster, which killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students.
Last week, thousands of demonstrators marched the streets of Seoul, protesting the government’s failures during the Sewol ferry tragedy. Riot police deployed water cannon and pepper spray to break up the crowds.
South Korea has the highest poverty rate for elderly citizens among 34 advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according a report released on Sunday.
The report from the government-funded Korea Labor Institute showed that as of 2011, 48.6 percent of elderly citizens lived below the poverty line. Switzerland ranked second in the report at 24 percent, nearly half of South Korea’s rate.
One contributing factor to Korea’s elderly poverty problem is its low net pension replacement rate of 45.2 percent, which is also far below the OECD average, reports Yonhap News Agency. Only five other nations–Mexico, Japan, Britain, New Zealand and Ireland–had a net pension replacement rate lower than South Korea. However, they did not have an elderly poverty rate nearly as high as Korea’s.
South Korea’s low employment rate for senior citizens is another major factor. In 2014, only 2 million out of 6.4 million senior citizens were employed, according to International Business Times.
For 10 consecutive years, South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among OECD countries, with a gradual increase in suicide rates for senior citizens. For elderly suicides, economic reasons was the most common motive cited at 44.1 percent, followed by family problems 11.4 percent and disease or disability at 10.9 percent.
“The problem of poverty among the elderly population will get more serious when the country’s elderly population grows further and baby boomers begin to retire in full swing,” Kim Bok-soon, an author of the report, told Yonhap. “The government’s policy on the labor market needs to be changed so it can accept more elderly workers.”
The South Korean government has been developing a number of smartphone apps to help warn parents when their child might be at risk for suicide, the Education Ministry announced Friday.
The ministry is hoping to introduce the apps immediately, as they are programmed to detect “suicide-related” trigger words used by children on social networks, messages or Internet searches from their phones. The children’s parents would then receive an alert from the app on their own phone.
The apps are not mandatory for parents to use, but the hope is to bring down South Korea’s alarmingly high suicide rate, which is one of the highest among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations. According to the Education Ministry, 878 students took their own lives between 2009 and 2014, including 118 last year.
The suicides peak during the months when students study for the extremely competitive national college entrance exam, while the most common causes are listed as problems at home, then depression, grades and career concerns. A survey by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation also found that over half of South Korean teens aged 14 to 19 have had suicidal thoughts.
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union raised privacy concerns over the app, adding that the app did not address systematic problems. They also said the exam system itself was also in need of reviewing.
A man armed with a hunting rifle fatally shot three people on Friday in a city just south of Seoul before killing himself, reports Yonhap News Agency.
Police said the shooting occurred in a two-story house located in the Hwaseong district of Namyang. Inside the first-floor living room, they found the bodies of the 75-year-old gunman, surnamed Jeon, his 86-year-old brother, his sister-in-law and a policeman, who was one of the first officers to respond to the call.
The daughter-in-law of the deceased couple managed to escape the shooting by jumping off the second story before alerting the police. She is currently being treated for minor back injury.
According to the neighbors’ testimonies, Jeon had a turbulent relationship with his brother. He would often get drunk and demand money from his brother’s family. One witness, who refused to be identified, said Jeon and his sister-in-law were arguing outside the house before the gunshots sounded.
In a news conference, Hwaseong police chief Lee Seok-kwon said a suicide note was found in Jeon’s car. He added that the slain officer, who was not wearing a bulletproof vest and was only armed with a tazer, tried to talk the gunman into surrendering and was fatally shot in the chest when he attempted to enter the house.
Civilians are rarely armed with firearms as gun possession is tightly controlled in South Korea. Only those with government-issued licenses can own guns, which are usually used for hunting animals. All guns are also required to be stored at police substations and are only given to licensed owners during legal hunting periods, according to the Associated Press.
The Hawseong police said Jeon took out a hunting rifle from the station about an hour before the shooting, saying that he would return it after he finishing hunting the next day. Officers said they noticed nothing suspicious about the man when he came to retrieve the gun.
South Korea’s National Police Agency said it plans to tighten regulations on gun control by limiting the number of police substations that give out firearms to licensed gun owners and requiring owners to renew their license by three years, instead of five years.
As of last January, there are about 160,000 legally owned firearms in South Korea. This figure includes hunting weapons and self-defense guns, according to the National Police Agency.
Popular K-pop trainee and reality-show contestant Ahn So-jin died on Feb. 24 after an alleged suicide attempt. Ahn was 22 years old.
According to Yonhap, Ahn was found unconscious in a flowerbed near an apartment in Daejeon at 2:07 p.m. KST. She was immediately rushed to the hospital, where she was declared dead upon arrival. After initial investigations, the police have ruled her death as a suicide and are currently investigating whether or not the singer had jumped from the 10th floor of the apartment complex. No note was found.
“We have concluded it to be suicide and we will be wrapping up the case. We did not find any traces of evidence that would suggest that it was something other than suicide,” said a representative from the Daeduk police station. “The family of the deceased are having a very difficult time, they want to send her off peacefully so there will not be any autopsy.”
Ahn was a trainee under DSP Media for five years and participated in the reality competition program Kara Project: The Beginning, also known as the “Baby Kara” series. She was one of seven singers vying to become a member of the established K-pop girl group Kara. She rose to fame and managed to make it to the top 4, but she was ultimately dropped from the competition.
It’s been reported that Ahn suffered from depression. DSP Media said in a press release that Ahn did not renew her contract with the agency one month ago and had returned back home to Daejeon since the reality show ended.
“We suddenly heard of this unfortunate news today. It is so unfortunate. We will do everything we can to help her family,” DSP Media told the press, according to allkpop.
K-pop fans have expressed their condolences for the departed talent through social media, making the hashtag #RIPSojin a worldwide trend.