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South Korea

Faith in God drives Korean man to fight bullying, suicide

Ramon Magsaysay Award goes to Kim Jong-ki for instilling self-esteem, tolerance and mutual respect among the young

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: September 17, 2019 08:58 AM GMT
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Faith in God drives Korean man to fight bullying, suicide

For his "courage in transforming private grief into a mission" to protect Korea’s youth from bullying and violence, Kim Jong-ki receives this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed "Asia's Nobel Prize." (Photo by Maria Tan)

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Unlike other conversion stories, Kim Jong-ki's does not start with the search for God.

It starts with how he lost his mind.

Kim was a highly successful Korean businessman who was working for a giant electronics company. He was happily married with a son and daughter.

He was at the height of his career when tragedy struck. While he was on a trip abroad, his son, 16-year-old Dae-hyun, committed suicide.

The first thing he did was question God.

"I'm a Christian, I work very hard, I go to church every Sunday, but why did He give me much sorrow?" he asked.

The suicide devastated the family. He was too desperate he almost died from sadness.

"My wife, too," he said.

"I did not pray, I did not go to church. I turned my back on God," he said.

"There was no God anymore," he added. 

Kim would later learn that Dae-hyun ended his life because of bullying he endured at school.

Unfortunately, during those days in Korea, bullying and school violence were not recognized as "life-threatening problems."

Worse, those who inflicted violence on his son continued to bully others. 

South Korea then had one of the highest suicide rates amongst the world's developed countries. 

In 2005, the suicide rate among middle and high school students stood at 7.6 students per 100,000.  

Studies noted that more than half of suicides were directly related to school bullying.

Kim had to channel his grief. He managed to convince himself that similar tragedies should not happen to other children.

He established the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence, a first in South Korea. 

It aims to address school violence as a "systemic social problem" affecting students, families, schools, and the community.

It was not easy, however. 

There was little public awareness of the scale and seriousness of school violence. It was regarded as normal among teenagers.

The government and the schools did not want public attention on the issue. Victims and their parents were afraid and did not want to speak out. 

But Kim persevered. He spoke publicly about his son's suicide and the bullying that triggered it.

"It was very difficult. There were many difficulties," he said. "I returned to God," he added.

He said the "turning point" was when he could not even pay the salaries of his staff at the foundation. 

"I did my best for society, for the children, but we were very poor," he recalled. "So I asked God to help me. I told him it was His responsibility," Kim said.

He said the foundation started with a few people, but when more cases came he had to hire more.

"So I asked God to give me a hand or else I couldn’t continue," he said.

Over the next 24 years, Kim and his staff developed a holistic program of detection, protection, and management of youth violence. 

Activities included anti-bullying campaigns, seminars, rallies, concerts, and film shows. The organization operated a hotline, which now takes up to 50 calls daily.

Today, the organization offers counseling and mediation services in partnership with Korea’s Ministry of Education.

Its pioneering "dispute mediation and reconciliation program" pays as much attention to reforming bullies and healing families as it does to protecting victims.

In 2010, it started an institute offering both onsite and online certificate training programs on youth violence prevention, detection and management.

A 2018 survey showed that since Kim started his campaign in 1995, the incidence of school violence has dropped from 20 percent to three percent. 

"It was God’s command that I contribute my life to this cause. It is my promise to my son," he said.

For his "quiet courage in transforming private grief into a mission" to protect Korea’s youth from bullying and violence, Kim received this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as "Asia's Nobel Prize."

The award-giving body recognized his "unstinting dedication to the goal of instilling among the young the values of self-esteem, tolerance and mutual respect."

Kim, however, attributed the success of his work to God. 

"I owe it to God," he said. "And I believe that my son is now smiling at me," he added.

Watch Kim Jong-ki being interviewed below:

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