- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2011

SEOUL | 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 this month was not an isolated incident: Three other students have killed themselves since January at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), 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 lives 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 achievement 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, Mr. 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 $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 $2,760, which is equal to one month’s salary for graduates entering the job market.

Looking to boost KAIST’s worldwide reputation, Mr. Suh also made it easier to fire professors falling behind certain standards.

Mr. 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.

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