SEOUL, South Korea — A day after meeting the school psychiatrist, a 19-year-old mathematics student at South Korea's most prestigious engineering college jumped to his death from a high-rise apartment. He was distressed over low grades.
The gifted student's suicide last week was not an isolated incident – three other students have killed themselves since January at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, a school that admits only the brightest South Korean students.
The deaths of four young people might not normally draw attention in a nation all too familiar with suicide: South Korea has one of the world's highest rates and the highest in the developed world. Several high-profile South Koreans, including former President Roh Moo-hyun, have taken their own life in recent years.
But their occurrence at a university that aspires to be a local version of America's vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the suicides have jolted the nation and left many wondering if South Korean society's unabashed pursuit of overachievement has gone too far.
"We tend to consider everyone other than the first-place winner as losers," said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychologist at Seoul National University. "As the society gets modernized, human relations have been subsequently cut, as people don't have friends to share their hardships and listen to their problems."
The obsession with academic success has even given rise to a new expression among young people: "umchinah," or my mother's friend's son – the elusive competitor who excels at everything.
The pressure to perform begins in high school. Classes begin around 8 a.m. and finish around 4 p.m. but in some schools students are required to stay as late as 10 p.m. Many students turn to private tutoring, some even study with tutors until 2 a.m. ahead of key exams.
Getting admission into colleges like KAIST is the ultimate dream of most high school science students.
According to Education Ministry figures, three elementary school students, 53 junior high students and 90 high school students committed suicide in 2010 alone.
Investigations are under way to determine what led the four KAIST students – all males aged between 19 and 25 – to kill themselves, but blame is being heaped on the university's U.S.-educated president, Suh Nam-pyo, and his ambitious efforts to create an ultra-competitive environment meant to carve an international name for the university.
"Now we are becoming like a saw-toothed wheel of a huge machine. We cannot spare even 30 minutes for our friends even if they get into some trouble. We only study subjects that we can get higher grades in," the student council said in a statement. "President Suh, you are wrong!"
After taking over in 2006, Suh ordered most of the university's classes taught in English and financially penalized students with poor grades. Otherwise, the state-funded college provides free education.
Students are forced to pay 60,000 won ($55) for every 0.01 point drop in grade point average below 3.0. So, a student with a 2.5 grade point average would end up paying 3 million won ($2,760), which is equal to one month's salary for graduates entering the job market.
Looking to boost KAIST's worldwide reputation, Suh also made it easier to fire professors falling behind certain standards.
Suh's moves initially drew strong support, and KAIST's placing in world university ranks rose dramatically. Proponents lauded the 74-year-old as the icon of South Korean campus reform.
The adulation didn't last long, however. His actions have been fiercely debated this year amid news reports that the four dead students suffered immense stress over their schoolwork.
In January, a 19-year-old freshman, who had been placed on academic probation, killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Two students jumped to their deaths last month.
The latest, identified only by his surname Park, had graduated from a special science high school for gifted students before joining KAIST, where he was majoring in mathematical science. University officials say he had applied for a leave of absence, citing depression, and had consulted the school psychiatrist on April 6, a day before he plunged to his death.
Adding to the debate, a KAIST professor was found dead Sunday, hanging from a gas pipe at his home following a government investigation into allegations that he embezzled official research funds.
Politicians, activists and liberal professors outside KAIST are calling for Suh's immediate resignation. He was questioned Tuesday at a parliamentary committee meeting about the recent deaths.
"I don't think it's right for him to stay on the job after five people have passed away," Chung Doo-un, a senior member of the ruling Grand National Party, told the meeting.
Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik has said that officials must first determine why the students killed themselves before holding Suh responsible. He said Suh has made positive contributions to South Korea's education reform.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the 31 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of wealthy, industrialized nations. The rate of suicide soared to 28.4 per 100,000 people in 2009, an increase from 18.7 in 2002, the Health Ministry said, citing an OECD figure.
Suicide is also the leading cause of death for South Koreans in their 20s and 30s amid fierce competition for jobs and other economic pressures, ministry officials said.
It is not just ordinary people who have committed suicide.
Roh, the former president, jumped to his death in May 2009 while embroiled in a corruption investigation. Choi Jin-sil, one of South Korea's most famous actresses, committed suicide in 2008, and her younger brother, also an actor and singer, hanged himself last year. Last October, a TV personality known as the "happiness preacher" killed herself with her husband.
Before Park's death, Suh defended his policies, saying smart students won't come to a university that doesn't challenge them. He later offered a public apology for the deaths and pledged to abolish financial penalties for low grades and ease the requirement for English-only classes.
But he said the competitive academic program may not be the only reason for the suicides and that he has no plans to step down immediately.
"I think it's proper to leave after completing the work I began to some extent," Suh said.