South Korean Actor's Death Triggers Concern Over Country's High Suicide Rate

Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images
Jeon Tae-su

Jeon Tae-su was found dead over the weekend, not long after the suicide of K-pop star Jonghyun.

A South Korean actor's death, possibly by suicide, is sending shock waves across the Asian country, particularly as it occurred not long after a high-profile suicide.

Actor Jeon Tae-su, who had been making inroads in the entertainment scene after appearing in TV dramas such as Sungkyunkwan Scandal, was found dead at the age of 34 on Sunday, which his agency Haewadal Entertainment confirmed in a statement released to the press on Monday.

In the statement, it said that Jeon had been receiving treatment for depression prior to "his sudden death." It did not mention a cause of death, but media reports and observers took the mention of his depression as a possible sign that he died by suicide.

Widely known as the younger brother of A-list actress Ha Ji-won, Jeon has starred in films such as The Madonna (2009), a short directed by actress-filmmaker Ku Hye-sun. Ha went on to cancel her commitments for the upcoming film Manhunt, a press event for which was scheduled in Seoul on Monday.

Meanwhile, industry watchers have reacted strongly to the news, as it occurred not long after the tragic suicide of K-Pop star Kim Jonghyun. Better known as Jonghyun of SHINee, a boy band with a broad fan base across Asia, Kim also reportedly suffered from depression before he took his own life on Dec. 18. He was only 27.

Jonghyun's death reignited nationwide concern over suicide in South Korea. Among OECD countries, it has had the highest suicide rate since 2003, with an average of one person taking his/her life every 40 seconds. The most recent statistic provided by local authorities showed that more than 13,000 Koreans committed suicide in 2016.

On Tuesday, Korea's minister of health and welfare, Park Neunghoo, announced plans for a program to prevent and curb suicides, for which he has set aside a budget of about $15.2 million (16.2 billion Korean won) for the initiative.

Meanwhile, psychologist and political commentator Leo Sang Min Whang pointed out larger concerns regarding such high-profile deaths implicating suicide.

"In case of both Jeon and Jonghyun, both of their agencies pointed out the fact that they suffered from depression. This disturbs me because it suggests that the reason for their suicide — or possible suicide for Jeon — was a personal reason and choice. But one has to wonder whether these giant entertainment companies were fully supportive of their artists," Whang told THR.

"Another problem is how suicides are largely met with silence in Korea," he added. "Koreans tend to sweep things under the rug and prefer not to talk about it. This does not allow for a healthy discourse and debate, which are necessary to solve any given problem — especially such a grave one like suicide."