Why do crimes against foreigners in Korea sometimes go unpunished?

Photo: US Army

By Sarah Caroline Bell

Violence is in the spotlight across ASEAN countries, and the rest of Asia is no exception.

In countries such as South Korea, violence is a huge issue prompting outrage from citizens, in disbelief that such acts could occur within their own country. But what about the situations that are ignored, or whcih pass with little comment?

South Korea is a safe country when it comes to things such as personal property, but what about violence? And what happens when one party is not a Korean citizen?

Back in 2013, President Park Geun-hye ordered the Korean National Police to direct more of their attention towards the four issues of sexual violence, domestic violence, violence in schools, and the issue of unsafe food. In their 2015 report on South Korea’s Crime and Safety, the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), advised that has been an increase in the overall number of arrests since Park directed the Korean National Police to take action.

But since that time, there has been an increase in the number of foreigners complaining about police inaction in relation to incidents of violence.

Walking away unpunished

Last week, a video was uploaded to Buzzfeed showing an unidentified western woman being beaten by a Korean man. According to the article, the two expats were out when they came across a man hitting a woman. Despite it taking place in public, nobody intervened, so the expats decided to help.

The man in question verbally abused the expats, and then continued to assault the girl. What happened next, is surprising.

As expats in Korea, there is little that they could do to help the girl without jeopardising their jobs, visas, and lives for helping. So they decided to video tape the man.

When the man realised they were filming the altercation, he started charging towards the expat who was holding the camera. He grabbed her by the throat and started choking her. He tried to grab the camera and also dragged her by her hair. The girls directed the police to where the incident was still occurring.

The police approached the man and the girl, and discovered that they were husband and wife. Because of this, the assault towards the woman was deemed justified. The expat who was attacked did not have her case examined, and the man simply walked away freely.

Violence in the spotlight

The situation last week was ignored by the police, yet violence in South Korea has been in the spotlight since May 2016, when a 23 year old Korean woman was murdered in a bathroom in Gangnam, prompting an outpouring of anger from citizens and also notably, and prompting women to share their own experiences as victims of violence.

The question is, in the most recent case, and in light of the murder, why did the police do nothing? If a man could strangle a woman and be unpunished, even when video evidence of that exists, then what is defined as violence?

In September 2015, Aidre Mattner, an Australian woman in Korea, was drugged and raped while enjoying a night out in Seoul. The rapist has still not been apprehended; Aidre is crowd funding to bring her rapist to justice. Notably, the person identified as the rapist is a person who is not ethnically Korean.

Shortly after the murder in Gangnam and the case of Airdre Mattner, I surveyed 237 foreign women in Korea asking them their opinions of both their safety and the police. Interestingly, foreign women feel safe in Korea, with 80.7% of survey respondents confirming they do feel a sense of safety. However, 95.3% believe more can be done in Korea to make the country safer.

Foreigners in South Korea consistently noted the lack of action by police to be the number one thing that makes them feel insecure. How can you feel safe when you know someone will get away with a violent act against you on any given day?

Some incidents related to me by various interviewees were disturbing:

“I reported an assault to the police once, but they were completely useless. They actually sighed in annoyance and said, ‘Maybe it was just a game he was playing.’ This was in relation to a time when a Korean man came up behind me, put me in a chokehold, and shoved his hand up my skirt as he tried to drag me away. They rudely said, “Well, what do you want us to DO?” They then hung up on me after telling me they couldn’t come.

“I was raped by a Korean man, but the police told me it was not worth the paperwork. I expected more from the police.”

“At my first English Academy, the manager used to beat me and threw chairs at me. When I went to the police, they did nothing.”

“I was drugged and raped, but I did not know how. They do not effectively treat assaulted women, ruin rape data, and spend too much time trying to convince people it is not a problem and to just forget about it.”

Not all negative

It is important to note that not all interactions with police are reported by women to be negative. However, experiences with the police are not consistent. Some commenters pointed out that this range of experiences simply highlights a need for further training, which is a valid point:

“From what I hear, some seem to do the right things. Others seem so far off the mark, it’s ridiculous. They need an overhaul, maybe reeducation for the older generation regarding international standards and etiquette when dealing with criminals and victims.”

“I have only had good experiences with the police in Korea. They have always been helpful and courteous. When I haven’t been comfortable in a situation, they have even escorted me. Don’t be afraid to approach them and ask for help. They take a lot of pride in their jobs and work hard to serve the public.”

“I reported a sexual assault and they responded better than I expected.”

“I have reported before, and they even called a translator for me which was amazing. This was twice, so I don’t feel it was luck. I think they are all great. Some have more patience than others, in my case they were young officers.”

“I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver. The police – in Incheon, not Seoul – were absolutely amazing. They believed me even when the taxi driver lied. They forced him to tell the truth.”

Consistency is required

The good news is that South Korea is aware of the problem, and it appears some members of the police force are doing an excellent job.

But more needs to be done. South Korea seems to be struggling to adapt to the policing needs of its growing foreign community.

Foreigners would like to know that if they went outside and someone committed an act against them, then appropriate action would then be taken against the offender. Victims need to be treated the same, regardless of their nationality.

Most importantly, violent offenders need to be punished appropriately and consistently, no matter who they are.