The number of obese people that can be seen in Korean cities is seemingly lower than in cities abroad. But recent data from the national statistics office suggested that the obesity problem in the country was much more severe than it appeared.
One in 3 Korean adults was obese in 2013, with the proportion of obese people in the total population increasing by 50 per cent over the past decade. In Korea, obesity tends to be regarded as an individual problem. But it needs to be addressed in a social context as well.
According to the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, obese people spend more than 30 per cent than normal-weight people on annual medical costs. The total social cost caused by obesity was estimated at 3.4 trillion won (S$3.9 billion) in 2012.
Considering its far-reaching negative impact on the economy and society, most advanced countries have defined obesity as a disease that needs to be cured. All members of the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development except Korea cover the treatment of obesity in their health care insurance.
This tendency to perceive obesity as a matter that individuals should be responsible for has led government policymakers here to make little effort to work out countermeasures. It should be noted that the correlation between obesity and different educational and family backgrounds is higher than usual in Korea.
Local studies show that the possibility of poorly educated women becoming obese is five times higher compared with well-educated women. Children are far more likely to suffer obesity if one or both parents are obese.
According to data released by the Education Ministry last month, more than 15 per cent of elementary, middle and high school students were obese in 2013, up 0.6 percentage point from the year before. It is noteworthy that the rate of child obesity in rural areas was higher than in urban areas, a phenomenon that might be related to educational and family factors.
Efforts to work out programs to prevent obesity and provide insurance coverage for it should be stepped up. Special care needs to be taken of those who have become obese for inherited and other biological reasons rather than poor lifestyles.
It may be necessary to levy health charges on some high-fat-content foods that cause obesity. The benefits from this measure could more than offset additional burdens on consumers.
US first lady Michelle Obama has led a campaign against child obesity, recently appearing at a "Let's Move" event in Miami, Florida. Unless the problem is kept in check, similar campaigns may have to be launched here, with prominent figures asked to join them. It would be best for all Koreans if this could be avoided for many years or, hopefully, forever.