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South Koreans Are Shaken by a Celebrity Suicide

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Newsis / Reuters

Actress Choi Jin Sil was found dead at her home in Seoul on Oct. 2

She was more than South Korea's Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie. For nearly 20 years, Choi Jin Sil was the country's cinematic sweetheart and as close to being a "national" actress as possible. But since her body was found on Oct. 2, an apparent suicide, she has become a symbol of the difficulties women face in this deeply conservative yet technologically savvy society. Incessant online gossip appears to have been largely to blame for her death. But it's also clear that public life as a single, working, divorced mom — still a pariah status in South Korea — was one role she had a lot of trouble with.

Dubbed the "nation's actress," Choi starred in some 16 movies and more than a dozen TV soap operas throughout the 1990s. But her career took a hit in 2002, when the public learned of her troubled marriage and subsequent divorce from Cho Sung Min, who plays baseball for the big leagues across the sea in Japan. After her divorce in 2004, the mother of two became anathema to producers and broadcasters who, according to industry observers, were and still are reluctant to put single mothers in starring or prominent roles. After four years of struggling, Choi's career had begun to pick up when her body was found in her bathroom in southern Seoul. She apparently hanged herself with a rope made of medical bandages. (Hanging is the most common form of suicide in South Korea, where gun ownership is illegal.) Her suicide has gripped the nation, dominating headlines as authorities, relatives and even the government try to determine what went wrong.

According to Korean news reports, Choi became depressed when rumors started circulating last month in the country's very active online communities that she was a loan shark and had driven a fellow actor, Ahn Jae Hwan, to kill himself. The word on the Net was that Choi had been pressuring Ahn to repay a loan of some $2 million. After enduring the accusations (which police said after her death were untrue), Choi killed herself in a "momentary impulse," according to the investigative team, driven by malicious rumors and prolonged stress.

South Korean police have since announced that they will crack down on online defamation, but little has been said about the late actress's problems as a single mother in this deeply conservative society. Choi spoke openly on the taboo topic and sought to change the unpopular public perception of single moms in South Korea. "Korean society does not like strong women, and thinks single moms have a personality disorder," says Park Soo Na, a national entertainment columnist. "It's like a scarlet letter." She says single mothers often ask their parents to raise their grandchildren so the kids don't have to endure the shame of living without a father figure. And for women without a movie star's bankroll, there's limited public financial support available, forcing some women to place their children in orphanages for long stretches or even put them up for adoption. "There's still a negative notion about single moms," says Lee Mijeong, a fellow at the Korean Women's Development Institute. "They have a hard time."

Whatever the motivation for her suicide, the actress's death has raised fears about a ripple effect. Korea has had the highest rate of suicide among the world's industrialized countries for the past five years. Policy makers and the general public readily admit that mental illness — even a common disorder like depression — is rarely talked about openly in the country. "Koreans are very secretive about psychiatric problems," says Lee Myung Soo, a psychiatrist at the Seoul Metropolitan Mental Health Centre who agrees that one of the main reasons that people won't talk about it here is fear of losing one's job. More people will probably seek treatment because of Choi's death, explains Lee. But he also fears that there will be more suicides, as has happened after other celebrity deaths.