Lonely death

Lonely, Aging, Dying: South Korea’s Kodokushi

ké radar

News on Nov. 28 of the death of TV star and film actress Lee Mi-ji shook South Korean portal websites due to the tragic circumstances surrounding her death: Alone in a studio apartment in Seoul’s Gangnam district, she reportedly suffered from a urinary-related problem and passed away approximately two weeks ago.

Her body was only discovered on Nov. 25 when neighbors called the emergency services hotline. Authorities broke into Lee’s apartment and found her body.

While she was only 57 years old, the news highlights a wider issue in South Korean society: social isolation of the elderly and the aging.

Lee’s death was described by media as a case of godoksa. Meaning “lonely death,” the term was coined in Japan (kodokushi) in the 1980s to describe the phenomenon of people, often elderly, dying alone without anyone noticing. Days, if not weeks, go by until someone discovers the remains.

It is of course too early to know the exact reason behind Lee’s apparent isolation, but if the latest statistics are anything to go by, the trend of living, and aging alone, is only increasing.

According to a 2016 census, one-person households made up for 27.9 percent of all households, up from 27.2 percent in 2015.

Broken down by age, people over the age 70 constituted the largest share of one-person households, at 17.8 percent; meanwhile, people in the 60-69 age group showed the highest increase in solitary living, from 670,000 in 2015 to 740,000 in 2016.

People living alone are often poor: According to Statistics Korea, the average income of one-person households in South Korea was 1.68 million won (1,550 dollars) in the third quarter of 2017, 3.51 percent lower than the same period in the previous year.

It is difficult to measure the number of godoksa in South Korea, since there are no clear statistics on the matter. Seoul Welfare Foundation carried out a study in 2016 based on an analysis of police records and found that in 2013, there were 162 ‘confirmed cases’ of people in Seoul dying alone and undetected — approximately one Seoulite every two days. As for ‘suspected cases’ of lonely deaths, the number tallied at 2,181, or 6 every day.

Other reports suggest that the number of people who die with no one to tend to their graves or perform funerary rites is rapidly increasing: 1,232 in 2016, jumping 77.8 percent jump since 2011.

The changes of family relationship, social and economic structure and culture have all been cited as causes of the isolation of South Korea’s elderly. But with no viable solution on the horizon, one cannot help but think that South Korea is unfortunately no place for old people.


Cover image: Empty room. (Source: Brad.K via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)


Read more about elderly people in South Korea:

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.