Amid Rising Suicides, Lotte Death Shines Light on Prosecutors

  • Lotte executive found dead hours before scheduled questioning
  • South Korea has highest suicide rate among OECD countries

As Lotte Group reels from the possible suicide of one of its top executives, the untimely death has become the latest example of what’s become an all-too-common outcome for South Koreans under investigation or facing prosecution.

Local police said on Friday they are investigating the death of Vice Chairman Lee In Won, whose body was found on Friday hours before the second highest-ranking executive at the Korean conglomerate was scheduled to be questioned by prosecutors. A note was found nearby and authorities will determine the cause of death following an autopsy.

To read more on the tragedy at Lotte Group, click here

Circumstances similar to Lee aren’t uncommon, according to the Korean Bar Association, which estimates that more than 100 people under investigation committed suicide from 2005 to 2015, with as many as 17 last year. The association alleges many of the suicides have come under what it called “repressive investigations.”

Representatives at the prosecutors’ office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

"It’s becoming more common in Korea more than other countries where some people opt to take drastic actions in these investigations,” said Kim Sang Jo, executive director at the Solidarity for Economic Reform and an economics professor at Hansung University in Seoul. “We’ve seen this happen in so many cases before Lotte.”

More broadly, taking one’s own life has plagued Korean society. The country had the highest suicide rate among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2012, the latest data available, Korea registered 29.1 suicides per 100,000 people, ahead of Hungary’s 22 and Japan’s 19.1.

The OECD statistics show that while the overall suicide rate among OECD countries has been decreasing since 1985, the rate in South Korea has been rising, particularly since 2000.

Below is a list of some of the most high profile suicides by those under corruption investigations in recent years.

  • 2015: Former head of construction firm Keangnam EnterprisesSung Wan Jong was found dead on a hiking trail with a suicide note listing names of government officials Sung alleged to have bribed. He had been under investigation for allegedly embezzling government funds that were directed at investments overseas.
  • 2009: Former President Roh Moo Hyun leapt off a cliff in his retirement home village in southern South Korea after he was questioned by prosecutors investigating allegations of bribery. The investigation was dropped immediately after his suicide.
  • 2004: Former president of Daewoo Engineering & Construction Co.Nam Sang Kook jumped off the Hannam Bridge after then-president Roh Moo Hyun accused Nam of bribery. His body, clad in a dark business suite and glasses, was found 11 days later.
  • 2003: Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Mong Hun leaped to his death from his 12th-floor office in Seoul after he was charged with illegally funneling money to North Korea. The heir to what was once South Korea’s biggest family-owned industrial empire left a four-page suicide note on a table in his office along with his glasses.
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