South Korea Table of Contents
The main causes of death traditionally have been respiratory diseases--tuberculosis, bronchitis, and pneumonia--followed by gastrointestinal illnesses. However, the incidence and fatality of both types of illness declined during the 1970s and 1980s. Diseases typical of developed, industrialized countries--cancer, heart, liver, and kidney ailments, diabetes, and strokes--were rapidly becoming the primary causes of death. The incidence of parasitism, once a major health problem in farming communities because of the widespread use of night soil as fertilizer, was reported in the late 1980s to be only 4 percent of what it had been in 1970. Encephalitis, a viral disease that can be transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, caused ninety-four deaths in 1982. To reduce fatalities, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs planned to vaccinate 17.2 million persons against the disease by 1988.
The tensions and social dislocations caused by rapid urbanization apparently increased the incidence of mental illness. In 1985 the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs began a large-scale program to expand mental health treatment facilities by opening mental institutions and requiring that new hospitals have wards set aside for psychiatric treatment. The ministry estimated the number of persons suffering from mental ailments at around 400,000.
South Korea has not been entirely immune from the health and social problems generally associated with the West, such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and addictive drugs. A handful of AIDS cases was reported during the late 1980s. Seoul responded by increasing the budget for education programs and instituting mandatory AIDS testing of prostitutes and employees of entertainment establishments. An AIDS Prevention Law was promulgated in November 1987. In late 1989, the government drafted a law requiring AIDS testing of foreign athletes and entertainers intending to reside in South Korea without their spouses for more than three months. Previously, the majority of those infected with AIDS had been prostitutes working near United States military bases, oceangoing seamen, and South Koreans working abroad. In the late 1980s, however, homosexuals began to account for an increasing number of those infected with the AIDS virus. The traditional Korean attitude toward homosexuality, which was to deny its existence, made it extremely difficult to treat this part of the population. The 200-percent annual increase in the number of AIDS-infected persons (from one reported case in 1985 to twenty-two cases in 1988) worried health officials.
While the use of heroin and other opiates was rare in South Korea and the use of cocaine limited, the use of crystalline methamphetamine, or "ice," known in South Korea as hiroppon, had become a serious problem by the late 1980s. Estimates of the number of South Korean abusers of this illegal drug (known in the United States as speed) ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 people in the late 1980s. Because use of the drug was believed to involve just low-status members of society, such as prostitutes and gangsters, the problem of hiroppon abuse had long been ignored in South Korea. The problem received greater attention from police and other government agencies during the late 1980s as the drug increased in popularity among professionals, students, office workers, housewives, entertainers, farmers, and laborers. Some observers suggested the drug's popularity was caused in part by a high-pressure work environment, in which people used hiroppon to cope with long working hours. It also has been suggested that the tighter border controls imposed by Seoul have resulted in diverting the product to the domestic market and contributing to greater domestic consumption.
An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine were produced within South Korea annually, much of this total destined for shipment to Taiwan, Japan, and the United States by South Korean and Japanese yakuza, or gangsters. Since the majority of users injected the drug intravenously (although smoking and snorting it were becoming popular), South Korean health officials were concerned that the drug could contribute to the spread of AIDS. In 1989 Seoul established a new antinarcotics division attached to the prosecutor general's office and increased almost fourfold the number of drug agents.
Data as of June 1990
South Korea Table of Contents