Violent Crimes Prompt Soul-Searching In Korea About Treatment Of Women

Jul 6, 2016
Originally published on July 6, 2016 5:34 pm

The stabbing death of a young woman in a Seoul subway station and the gang rape of a teacher have stirred intense public debate about the status of women in South Korea.

By most measures, South Korea is a modern country with one of the largest economies in the world. But it has catching up to do when it comes to gender equality, and the recent events have burst open long-festering issues surrounding societal attitudes about women.

In May, the Gangnam subway station in the Seoul district famous for its eponymous K-pop song earned notoriety for a grim reason: A male suspect stabbed to death a 23-year-old woman in a public restroom near the station.

The suspect's explanation? He "hated women for belittling him." The victim was a stranger. Security footage shows the man passed over six men who entered the bathroom before singling out his female victim.

"It was the sort of crime that, if you are a woman, any woman could have had this happen to them," said Kim Hyunsoo, a coordinator at Korea Women's Association United, which works for gender equality. "The issues of gender violence were brought to the forefront."

Indeed, the incident touched a nerve. Women from across the country posted messages at the station entrance near the scene of the crime, memorializing the victim. The most common sentiment: "I survived, only by coincidence."

A week after the murder, a young teacher on a remote island in South Korea was gang-raped by three men, two of whom were fathers of her students.

Prosecution is underway in both cases. But the back-to-back crimes highlighted a larger problem about how South Korean society regards women.

"It's not [that] gender-violence crime has suddenly erupted," Kim says. "It's a problem that's existed persistently in Korean society. It's a crime that's a result of discrimination and hatred against women."

Changing Attitudes

The law here forbids discrimination on the basis of gender. But laws are easier to change than attitudes. The World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 115 out of 145 countries for gender equality. It has the worst wage gap among developed nations. From January to August last year, nearly 90 percent of the victims who reported violent crimes were women.

While South Korea's overall crime numbers are relatively low, women and men view the threat of crime quite differently. A national government survey two years ago asked about a variety of societal issues, including the "main cause" of South Koreans' anxiety, and there, the gender split shows. Twice as many women as men reported that their top concern was crime.

"We've changed the law to make it more equal for men and women. But the perceptions and the systems are very old habits. And they're hard to change," says Choi Changhaeng, a division director at the government's Gender Equality Ministry.

"There are voices increasingly concerned about hatred against women. So our measures encourage a culture of equality between genders," Choi says.

Following the Gangnam murder, the ministry announced a raft of measures, including widening the support network for sexual assault victims and establishing a protocol for civil society on how to respond to sex crimes. The city of Seoul pledged to double the number of security cameras in public places like the Han River, which bisects the capital. And the nation's top university installed a scream-detector in its female restrooms.

Symptoms And Causes

But some advocates, like Kim, say many of the prescriptions address symptoms of the problem, not the causes.

"It's not about increasing the number of CCTVs," Kim says. "It should be more about eliminating the perceptions and the structures that perpetuate gender discrimination and hatred."

That's perhaps easier said than done. The growing chorus of women speaking out against violence is being met by men's rights groups, both on- and offline. The leader of one men's group warned against reverse discrimination of men. Following the Gangnam murder, some men's rights groups even staged protests at the makeshift memorial to the victim.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

South Korea is considered a modern country but not when it comes to gender equality. This summer, two brutal acts of violence have stirred debate about the treatment of women there. NPR's Elise Hu has our story, and we want to warn you, it contains descriptions that may be unsuitable for some listeners.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Gangnam is the tony Seoul district made famous by its eponymous K-pop song. In May, the Gangnam subway station earned notoriety for a grim reason. A male suspect stabbed to death a 23-year-old woman in a public bathroom at the station. The suspect's explanation - that he, quote, "hated women for belittling him." She was a stranger. Security footage shows the killer passed over six men who entered the bathroom before singling out his female victim.

KIM HYUNSOO: (Through interpreter) It was the sort of crime where if you are a woman, any woman could have had this happen to them.

HU: Kim Hyunsoo is a coordinator at Korea Women's Association United, which works for gender equality.

KIM: (Through interpreter) The issues of gender violence were brought to the forefront.

HU: A week later, a young teacher on a remote island in South Korea was gang raped by three men, two of whom were fathers of her students. Prosecution is underway in both cases, but the back-to-back incidents highlighted a larger problem - how South Korean society views its women.

KIM: (Through interpreter) It's not gender violence crime that suddenly erupted. It's a problem that's existed persistently in Korean society, and it's a crime that's a result of sexual discrimination and hatred against women.

HU: Laws here forbid discrimination on the basis of gender, but changing laws is easier than attitudes. The World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 115 out of 145 countries for gender equality. That's down near Burkina Faso. It has the worst wage gap among developed nations, and from January to August of last year, nearly 90 percent of the victims who reported violent crimes were women.

CHOI CHANGHAENG: (Through interpreter) We've changed the law to make it more equal for men and women. But the perceptions in the systems are very old habits, and they're hard to change.

HU: Choi Changhaeng is a director at the government's gender equality ministry.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) There are voices increasingly concerned about hatred against women, so one of our measures is to encourage a culture of equality between genders.

HU: Following the Gangnam murder, the ministry last week announced a raft of measures, including widening the support network for sexual assault victims and establishing a protocol for civil society on how to respond to sex crimes. The city pledged to double the number of security cameras in public places like the Han River which bisects Seoul. And the nation's top university installed a scream detector in its women's bathrooms.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) By doing that, we expect to reduce the number of crimes against women.

HU: But some advocates, like Kim, say many of the prescriptions address the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.

KIM: (Through interpreter) So it's not about increasing the number of CCTVs. It should be more about eliminating the perceptions and the structures that perpetuate gender discrimination and hatred.

HU: Easier said than done. A growing chorus of women speaking out against violence is being met by men's rights groups on and offline. One group leader warned against reverse discrimination of men. Following the Gangnam murder, the men's rights groups staged protests at a makeshift memorial to the victim. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.