by Alaric Naudé EdD PhD
In the third of our occasional series of blogs about views of Male Psychology and masculinity around the world, Professor of linguistics, Alaric Naudé, tells us about men’s mental health in the South Korea today.
Korea is a land of contrasts and beauty in many ways. However, just as many beautiful creatures have harsh toxins, Korea has several elements that can make it a harsh environment for men. Many of the difficulties that surround males are driven by the recent events in history including the Korean War and the hyper-military dictatorships that followed. These difficulties in pressure on men have also translated into unhappiness for the family unit.
The hierarchical structure of Korean society is based on Neo-Confucianism principles and this is reflected in the built in honorifics system of the Korean language. Korean grammar structure changes depending on the hierarchical position of the speaker relative to the person being addressed. Both men and women are under strict social pressure to behave to a certain standard and while this can be beneficial to social harmony, an unbalanced approach can lead to friction and disadvantage.
Fortunately in Korea the concept of feminism is not taken very seriously, ironically, strongest opposition come from women who view the movement as an affront to tradition, patronising and their extreme behaviour to be against the greater social good. With that said, there are specific inequalities that men have faced and are facing in Korea.
The hyper-militaristic dictatorship under Chung Hee Park forced conscription of men onto the whole country. His personal ideology was highly influenced by Bushido philosophy and he spearheaded his own particular brand. Men were to behave in the predefined manner as stipulated by the party policy. Unfortunately for groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, their men were specifically targeted. Their refusal of military conscription and desire to do non-military alternative service was viewed with great ire and many were beaten, tortured and killed. Collectively they served prison sentences amounting to 37,800 years and this human rights abuse was only recently rectified.
Men in general have pressure to be of a certain socio-economic status before marriage and to have elaborate weddings, this has resulted in the marriage rate plummeting, the birth rate plummeting and the suicide rate significantly increasing. Many of my male students worry about their future work and possibility of marriage with several expressing a desire to search for work abroad.
Mental health in Korea is somewhat of a taboo subject and the stigma attached to men is significant. Having been diagnosed with a mental health issue may affect the type of work that can be gained and the ability to move up the socio-economic ranks, which in turn leads to more unhappiness and more suicide.
The Korean suicide rate is of special concern because the inability to access counselling in correlation to the stigma attached for even receiving counselling means that there is no easy remedy to the problem. Culturally men may also be hesitant to turn to their friends for assistance lest they be viewed as weak.
In school, boys are being out performed by girls. Demographically, teaching is a female dominated field and some of my female student teachers have commented that they feel unfair focus is given by other female teachers to their female students. Male students are becoming less motivated due to disinterest in studying based on the pressure of future expectations. This is likely to cause a large shift in future demographics. Females generally marry across the same socioeconomic level or upwards. Men generally marry on the same socioeconomic level or downwards. However, the current flip in academic results and the ever widening gap means that the future marriage rate will likely only continue to decrease, to the detriment of society and a catastrophe for population levels.
Like any other country, the issues facing Korea are highly complex and compounded by biological factors as well as the cultural damage caused by the Korean War. There are no easy answers, yet, psychological outreach and awareness of male mental health issues are an imperative beginning to resolving many of these conundrums.
About the author
Alaric Naudé EdD PhD is Professor of Linguistics at the Department of Nursing, Suwon Science College & Seoul National University of Education, South Korea.