[The Korea Herald ] How can Korea end poverty?

By John Power

Korea’s meteoric rise to prosperity since the 1960s is often cited as an almost unparalleled example of success in lifting a population out of poverty. But despite a vast improvement in living standards since the aftermath of the Korean War, poverty remains an everyday reality for a significant number of Koreans.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 15.2 percent of Koreans earn below 50 percent of the median wage after taxes and government transfers.

Some of this poverty is relative, measured against the wealth of society as a whole, rather than reflecting people’s ability to make ends meet. Nevertheless, a widening gap between the richest and poorest has become a major concern of the public as well as the political classes.

Residents of Guryong shanty village live in the shadow of Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

More striking for a developed country is the number of households in absolute poverty. According to a study by Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs covering the years 2004-2009, 27 percent of households had seen their income fall below the absolute poverty level for a least one year, meaning they couldn’t meet the costs of basic goods.

Another statistic, from Statistics Korea, puts it that 2.11 million workers earned less than the minimum monthly wage of 858,990 won (about $770) in 2010.

Kim Kyo-seong, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at Chung-Ang University, believes the government underestimates the scale of poverty in the country, something reflected in its meager welfare provision.

“The government makes the problem worse or even they try to hide the exact number or exact scale of poverty (affected) households,” said Kim. “Only 5-6 percent of households or less can receive the benefits from the social security or social assistance programs. The government must make a more generous social assistance program and try to make more decent jobs … with adequate wages.”

Kim identifies a high percentage of irregular workers in particular as a major driver of poverty here. Last year, irregular workers made up more than 34 percent of the country’s workforce, according to official figures, high by OECD standards. Other estimates put the figure at more than 47 percent.

Elderly poverty also sets Korea apart from other wealthy countries: More than 45 percent of Korea’s elderly fall below the poverty line, compared to the OECD average of around 13 percent.

“The national pension scheme, the old-age pension for the general public, was introduced in 1988. So it is relatively young and there are not many people who are receiving the pension benefit,” said Koh Yong-sun, a researcher at Korea Development Institute.

In 2010, 2.3 million people received old-age pension benefits from the National Pension Service out of 19.1 million enrolled, according to Rand Population and Labor, a U.S.-based policy think tank. When the NPS was set up, it was envisaged that recipients with 40 years of contributions would receive 60 percent of their income in pension payments. Fiscal realties mean this proportion will be reduced to 40 percent by 2028.

With many low wage workers unable to make regular pension contributions, Kim said, securing their future financial security will be a particular challenge.

Solutions are often drawn along ideological lines. Where one school of thought tends toward direct government assistance, the other emphasizes economic growth in the hope of lifting living standards for all.

A 1998 paper by the KDI attributed a reduction in the absolute poverty rate from almost 41 percent of households in 1965 to 7.6 percent in 1991 to economic growth.

Another study by the Harvard Institute for International Development in 1997 concluded that 10 percent GDP growth results in an equal rise in income for the poorest 40 percent of the population. The study’s authors cited the experience of Korea as generally supporting this thesis.

Other factors have been shown to contribute to the reduction of poverty.

“Growth with Equity: Policy Lessons from the Experience of the Republic of Korea,” a paper from the KDI, estimates that “3.2 percentage points out of 5.9 percent real per capita income growth during 1960-1985 can be explained by educational achievement.”

The report goes on to state that educational opportunities should be increased for the poor to escape poverty.

Kim believes economic growth is far less important to alleviating poverty than government programs. Korea, he argues, should move toward the high-tax, universal-welfare model of the Scandinavian countries.

“As you see, our big companies like Samsung always make big a profit but we can never observe a trickle-down effect at all. They get everything. In that kind of economic world, it (growth) means nothing.”

Ewha Womans University professor and poverty researcher Sophie Lee agrees that economic growth cannot be the focus of poverty reduction policy.

“Korea now needs to move on from strongly believing that the trickle-down effect will still work, meaning that economic growth can be spread equally to reduce overall poverty. A more comprehensive welfare program is necessary, especially in Korea where the majority of work in the labor market is precarious,” said Lee.

While current welfare framework has the right components, said Koh, its reach and effectiveness need improvement.

“Basically, we have all the elements but the problems lies with the effectiveness of these programs. For example the unemployment insurance only covers a small part of the working population so I think we need to make efforts to expand coverage of these insurance programs and also need to increase the coverage of the public assistance programs,” he said.

In Kim’s view, however, boosting labor market participation and productivity in small domestic industries should be the priority of the government.

“We need greater emphasis on promoting labor market participation, especially of low-skilled laborers. … We are witnessing an increasing gap between various sectors, for example between the manufacturing sector and the service sector. And also we are seeing a widening gap between large corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises.

“The basic drive between this widening gap can be found in the productive growth in the manufacturing sector … while the domestic industries remain very uncompetitive because they are not exposed to foreign competition.”

Added to this, should be measures to train low-skilled workers, said Koh, who believes there is little the government can or should do about the size of the gap between the rich and poor itself.

“The government should make efforts to help low-skilled workers retrain themselves for example or to find better matches in the labor market. Currently the public employment service is rather weak … the spending, for example, is very small compared to other OECD countries.”


[The Korea Herald] Zenith scam case one of frustration and failure

Part five of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John. 

By John Power and Kim Young-won

Expat fraud victims still waiting for resolution, eight months after police were first notified of rogue travel agent

For the victims of rogue travel agent Wan-goo “Wystan” Kang, the road to justice has been long and fraught with frustration.

Scammed out of a combined 150 million won ($128,000), some 65 foreign residents here have been waiting to see the outcome of the case since August, when police say they were first alerted to Kang.

In that time, many have left the country and Kang was allowed to continue working for six months.

“An apology does not suffice for what he has done,” said Irishman Kieran Curran, who along with his partner is owed 2.4 million won after they were left stranded in Prague.

“He repeatedly took advantage of people. When caught he was allowed to continue without punishment.”

Operating under the banner of Zenith Travel, and targeting foreign customers with adverts in The Korea Herald, Korea Times and other media, Kang’s modus operandi rarely deviated.

Kang would accept payment and send his customers a flight itinerary, only to cancel the airline booking without warning, pocketing the refund. In some cases, it is likely no booking was ever made.

Customers would then receive an e-mail from Kang claiming the booking had accidently been cancelled, and to wait for a refund, which in most cases never came.

Less fortunate victims were told they had no booking at the check-in desk of a foreign airport, between legs of a long-haul flight or on their way back to Seoul.

Isolated, relatively minor online complaints about Zenith Travel, which had a long history of satisfied customers, date back to at least 2008.

It would later emerge from the Korea Tourism Organization that Zenith Travel had never been legally entitled to serve foreign customers, despite its relatively sound reputation, as it lacked the necessary license.

It wasn’t until last July that serious accusations began to reach a critical mass, first on expat forum Dave’s ESL Cafe. In mid-September, they were picked up by The Three Wise Monkeys, an online media site for expats, and reported on shortly thereafter by The Korea Herald.

By this point, Kang had been reported to the police in Seocho, southern Seoul. Police officials told The Korea Herald they first received complaints about Kang in early August ― Aug. 5, according to one of the victims.

From this point, it would be almost nine weeks before Kang was arrested in the second week of October. During this time Kang would continue to take money from unsuspecting customers.

Action from the local government was similarly slow-moving, with Seocho District Office not revoking Kang’s business license until Oct. 6.

An unwillingness to cooperate with media was also notable. A district office spokesman refused to provide The Korea Herald with a press release on the initial arrest, claiming he could not be certain he was speaking to a journalist ― despite the release being freely available on the office’s website.

In the statement, the district office claimed to be aware of 25 victims, a number that would swell enormously in the subsequent weeks.

In mid-October, the International Crime Investigation Department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which had taken over the case in September, told The Korea Herald the case would be handed over to the prosecution by the end of the month.

For Kang’s victims, it seemed like justice was in sight.

However, Kang’s run of fraud was far from over. Shortly after his arrest, a Seoul judge refused a warrant to detain Kang, deeming him not to be a flight risk.

Then, on Jan. 5, The Korea Herald revealed the scam’s next incarnation: Kang, using the name “Joseph Kim,” had started another fraudulent business, Travel Expert, and continued to con tourists.

In the subsequent investigation by the authorities it transpired that Kang had set up his new business in Songpa, Seoul, days after his release from custody. He had legally registered it several weeks later with the local district office.

When contacted, Songpa District Office said that it had no knowledge of Kang’s activities when it granted his second business’ license in his stepdaughter’s name on Nov. 24.

Strikingly, Kang would not be indicted for his crimes until Feb. 16, almost six weeks after the revelations about Travel Expert ― and more than six months after the initial police complaints about Zenith Travel.

Songpa District Office said it had received complaints about Travel Expert, but first heard of Kang when it was contacted by Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office after his indictment.

Songpa said the requirements to register a business include capital of 60 million won, and paperwork relating to the owner and the business’ accounts.

It confirmed there is no prohibition on registering a business in a name besides one’s own, and that it has no way of determining whether an applicant is under criminal investigation. It can, however, check whether an applicant has been barred from running a business. As the district office was unaware of the true operator, this power was of no use in detecting Kang.

Kang has admitted to defrauding his customers and is due to be sentenced June 5. He denies a further charge of embezzling 60 million won in travel certificates from another travel agency. Prosecutors are seeking four years in prison, while the defense is asking the court to take into account Kang’s difficult financial circumstances and acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

With some conclusion in sight, victims that spoke to The Korea Herald were uniform in their dissatisfaction with the handling of the case.

“Where is the money?” asked Curran.

“Surely there has to be a money trail. Why weren’t his bank accounts searched and audited? Are there no assets at all in his family? Does he have a car, house, TV, computer?

“It’s easy for him to move the cash, take a small or no sentence and then be able to use his ill-gotten gains when he is free again. It certainly makes you feel like a second-class citizen when someone can repeatedly scam people with impunity from the law.”

Despite a group of some 20 victims winning a civil case for damages, it may prove impossible for them to recoup their losses. The court has accepted that Kang has no assets to pay back his victims.

A prosecutor at Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office familiar with the case refused to comment on whether prosecutors were confident Kang had no assets and how this was determined.

He also refused to comment on when the prosecution first became aware of Travel Expert.

Another victim who wished to remain anonymous said he didn’t care about the money, but simply wants to see Kang receive due punishment. He, too, has been aghast with the response of the authorities, saying his initial complaint to police at Gangdong Station in southern Seoul was met with indifference.

“The first time I went to the police station … they told me to deal with it face-to-face. They just turned their backs on me at the police station; they wouldn’t even take a police report,” he said.

He also complained that repeated e-mails to the Korea Times to remove its advert for Zenith Travel went unheeded.

A lack of feedback on the case from the authorities is another complaint. Most of the complainants have received their only updates on proceedings from Jo Tae-jin, a lawyer from Korea Legal Aid Corporation working on a pro bono basis.

“They took the complainant from us and told us that Korean system takes longer time and you need to wait … So far officially no police or any judicial guy from the government has contacted or updated us. It’s through the Facebook where lawyer Jo Tae-jin gave us updates,” said Ashok Dash, an Indian living here who was scammed out of more than 1.5 million won.

Kang’s fate will be determined on his day in court in June. But disillusionment with the legal system reigns among his spurned customers.

“It would not surprise me one iota that whenever he is free again the scamming will start again,” said Curran.

“Why wouldn’t he? He has literally nothing to lose. I’m not so sure the reaction would be the same if it was me scamming 200 million won from a large group of Koreans.”

[The Korea Herald] Is Korea at risk of a housing bubble?

By John Power

The property market is stagnant and needs a jolt. At least, that’s the view of the government, which on May 10 announced measures to boost house sales, particularly in affluent areas of southern Seoul such as Gangnam, Songpa and Seocho.

Within days, however, real estate agents and market observers had labeled the measures, including lowering transaction taxes and easing lending rules, too modest to be effective.

If boosting weak property values is today’s concern, very different fears dominated discussion on real estate until relatively recently. This month two years ago, Hyundai Economic Research Institute warned of a catastrophic collapse of an inflated market without immediate government action. Economist Kim Kwang-soo, the head of think tank KS Economic Research Institute, made similar predictions, claiming that mortgage debt and speculative buying had led to a huge bubble the government could only hide for so long.

Real estate in Seoul’s Gangnam, one of the most expensive property areas in the country. (Yonhap News)

There is no single definition for what constitutes a bubble. Yale economics professor Robert J. Shiller, however, has defined it as an unsustainable rise in prices based on “exaggerated expectations of future price increases.”


Although housing crashes tend to be more gradual than those on the stock market, they are more prolonged and cause more economic damage, according to a 2003 report by the International Monetary Fund. Heightening the threat is that a bubble is difficult to identify until well after it has burst.

In the midst of the dire predictions, house prices in 2010 were falling sharply, accelerating a downward trend that had begun in 2009. The growth in prices had peaked in 2006, when Seoul prices rose almost 20 percent, prompting the Roh Moo-hyun government to impose tighter lending rules and higher capital gains taxes to cool the market.

Park Moon-seo, an associate professor at the department of architecture of Seoul National University, said these measures were only partially successful, and could in fact end up contributing to a bubble and crash.

“Anti-speculation policies of the previous government were a half-success,” he said. “They were successful in terms of decreases in housing prices. At the same time, they were unsuccessful, as they have suppressed housing demand with non-natural market control, which accumulates its abnormal energy. Thus, they may result in a sudden rise of housing prices or bubble collapse in the future.”

Kim is much more forceful: There cannot be doubt that the market is already grossly inflated and heading toward a bust. When the bubble pops, he warned, the results could be even more catastrophic than the current situation in the United States or Greece.

“It is indisputable that there is a housing bubble risk in Korea,” said Kim. “The bubble first began with the sudden change in interest rate policy after the foreign exchange crisis in 2001, which caused a rise in speculation. And in order for banks to fund the boom in lending ―- due to speculation ― they borrowed foreign capital, causing a rise in household debt. And more debt means that people want to sell their houses. So, the government has ― in vain ― tried to solve this problem by investing vast amounts of money borrowed to fund its stimulative policies.”

Underscoring the severity of the situation, Kim said, is the fact that Korea’s disposable income-to-household debt ratio, at 165 percent, is the highest in the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation. That house prices have been falling for several years and about two-thirds of the 50 biggest construction firms have gone bankrupt or are on the verge of bankruptcy is proof the collapse has already begun.

“Once a bubble has been created, the bursting of the bubble cannot be deterred,” said Kim. “It is an inevitable phenomenon, which was seen in the subprime mortgage crisis of the U.S., and in other nations as well such as Japan. These nations did not suffer from the bubble because they lacked expertise or money. And the same is taking place in Korea after the bubble was created.”


What the government must do, according to Kim, is allow the bubble to burst naturally, at which point the government can provide financial assistance to those hit hardest, and wait for the market to correct itself.

Other observes make starkly different assessments. Kwon Joo-an, a researcher at the Korea Housing Institute, doesn’t believe the evidence points to a massively inflated market at all.

“When we look at the movement of house prices, the prices do not go down rapidly, which means that it is not a bubble or (is only) a little bubble,” he said.

Kwon sees the country’s high real estate prices as a consequence of high population densities in urban areas and a demand not met by supply. In his view, reinvigorating the moribund market should be the short-term priority of the government and the Bank of Korea, rather than resolving household debt.

In contrast to the previous government, the Lee Myung-bak administration has consistently tried to prop up the property market. This began in 2009 with the government purchasing 5 trillion won ($4.2 billion) worth of land and newly built unsold housing. The following year, lending rules were eased, tax exemptions extended and regulations on total debt-payment ratios in non-speculative areas abolished.

Last year saw further measures, with the lifting of a ban on quick sales in highly sought-after areas and a reduction in the levies on profits made on house sales by multiple property owners.

Park thinks that lower capital gains taxes as implemented by the current government should have a positive effect on the present market.

“Depending on the market situation, such a tax policy would effect either positively or negatively the market. Nowadays, it is believed that it is time to revitalize the market and increase the transaction volume. In this sense, lower taxes can have a positive effect on the market.”

Financial strife

In Kwon’s opinion, the lower capital gains tax policy is likely to have little effect on the market, for good or bad. Both Park and Kwon agree, however, that the market must be allowed to self-regulate to some degree.

“Demand management policy has faced its limit in effectiveness and the government must face the fact that the market has to be free in order to remain stable,” said Kwon.

With the cost of purchasing property closely related to the cost of borrowing, monetary policy is another significant variable in the movement of prices. Lower interest rates from the central bank typically boost housing demand, while higher rates do the reverse. On the BOK’s rate-setting policy, too, experts disagree.

“The Bank of Korea’s low interest policy is surely intended to boost the nation’s economy and housing market. As for house prices, such a policy can provide low incomers with a chance to buy their own house and at the same time fuel up speculation. Although monetary policies cannot be evaluated by simple mathematics, the current BOK policy seems to be appropriate, at least for the housing market, judging from the recent decreases in house prices,” said Park.

Kim sees it very differently: The BOK has only added fuel to the fire.

“The more the BOK or government tries to deter the bursting of the bubble, the worse the situation will become. Since 2008, the BOK has printed 150 trillion won. What began as household debt has become government debt and financial strife of public companies as well.”

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea boost tourism?

Korea isn’t a common choice for Western tourists, though it enjoys significant numbers of visitors from China and Japan. This piece was written in the context of common complaints by foreigners living in Korea that the country doesn’t do a good job of promoting its strengths. — John.

By John Power

Korean tourism has seen something of a boom in recent years. Foreign tourist numbers grew almost 50 percent from 2007-2011, from about 6.5 million visitors to close to 10 million.

This year, the Korea Tourism Organization aims to increase that number to 11 million. But despite the considerable progress in bringing in more tourists, Korea still lags behind some of its neighbors in the region. Thailand saw 19 million visitors last year, while Singapore attracted 13.2 million. China, the world’s fourth-largest country, welcomed 53 million visitors in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.

Moreover, Korea ranked just 32nd out of 139 countries in last year’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report compiled by The World Economic Forum. In Asia-Pacific, Korea placed 6th in the index, which measures how attractive a destination is to tourists.

Tourists get help from led jacket tour guides in Myeong-dong in Seoul. (Yonhap News)


Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident of Korea from the U.S. and author of two travel books on the country, believes better communicating the stories behind the sights could boost the industry.

“I think Korea has begun doing a pretty good job promoting what it’s got. It’s just a question of being patient and remaining on target ― the results will come. That said, like any place, a lot of places in Korea have great stories behind them, some of them not widely known. ‘Storytelling’ is just coming into its own, so those of us involved in promoting Korean travel need to be looking always for good stories to put a name to a place, so to speak,” he said.

For Koehler, this should include retelling not only the prouder moments of the country’s history, but the uglier events of its past as well.

“Not all history is pretty, but even the ugly stuff can be fascinating as long as you’ve got the confidence to embrace it and share it.”

Lee Jang-hyuk, an associate professor of marketing at Korea University, favors a different approach. Rather than dwelling on its past, Korea’s should be highlighting its vibrant present.

“… Make visitors experience Korea of today, not its history. For example, not many people visit Hong Kong and Singapore to visit museums. We’d better propose unique experiences such as concerts, sports events, theater (and) shopping supported effectively by Korea’s mobile and fixed Internet infrastructure. (For example) five-day free access to the Wi-Fi/LTE network for visitors,” said Lee.

In promoting the Korea of today, hallyu should play a major role, according to Lee, who pointed to the popularity of K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, whose music video for “The Boys” has garnered more than 45 million views so far on YouTube.

“I think recent K-pop stars would be appropriate models for information diffusion and sharing with target customers. For example, SM Town effectively leverages new media. It starts with YouTube archiving its singers’ videos and its singers communicate with their fans directly through Twitter as well as their Facebook fans.”

But despite the last decade’s upsurge in tourism, it is a common refrain that Korea suffers from its location between China and Japan, countries that loom large in any imagination.

Koehler cautions against inevitable comparisons to neighbors such as China, which he sees as unfair, despite Korea’s potential as a tourist destination.

“Korea is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, especially from other Asian countries, in no small part due to its growing ‘cool’ factor. Still, in terms of absolute numbers, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect Korea to compete with China. China is, well, China. There’s a reason it’s the third most popular tourist destination worldwide.”

But according to a spokeswoman for the Korea Tourism Organization, the organization does not see a disadvantage in the country having such imposing neighbors. If anything, it should be seen as the opposite.

“The proximity to China and Japan has a positive impact on Korean tourism as China and Japan have the world’s largest potential in regard to consumption,” said the spokeswomen who asked not to be named.

Distinct image

“In fact, Japan ― 33.6 percent in 2011 ― and China ― 22.7 percent in 2011 ― represent the largest proportion of foreign tourists to Korea. In addition, there is a synergy effect to attract tourists to Korea from long distance markets ― Europe, America ― who visit China and Japan because Korea is located between these two countries.”

She added that the KTO’s goal is create a distinct image of Korea in the minds of potential tourists, one which conveys Korea’s “unique and special energy” of “Gi” (energy), “Heung” (joy) and “Jeong” (affection).

“The KTO has been trying to create and promote a consistent image of Korean tourism. As a result, Korea is steadily improving its position as a tourist destination.

“The KTO is committed to promoting the image of Korea and attracting foreign tourists through the 31 overseas offices by participating in Tourism Fairs, holding road shows, and developing tourism products.”

The spokeswomen said that around $116 million would be spent on tourism promotion this year.

Nevertheless, the nation’s tourism strategy has come in for criticism. In September, the Federation of Korean Industries blamed over-regulation and a lack of tourism infrastructure such as accommodation and leisure facilities for Korea’s low ranking in tourism competitiveness.

As an example of excessive regulation, the FKI pointed to a rule that prohibits the construction of facilities within a 100-meter radius of cultural properties and in mountainous areas with slopes of more than 21 degrees.

In the view of the FKI, a country with the economic weight of Korea should be more competitive in attracting tourists.

“(Korea’s tourism competitive ranking) is far below where the country stands in terms of gross domestic product and national competitiveness, which are 13th and 22nd each,” it said in a statement.

In the run up to the opening of the Yeosu Expo, the issue of insufficient accommodation was brought back into the spotlight. Organizers admitted that Yeosu wouldn’t have enough accommodation to meet the estimated demand, and advised visitors to lodge in other cities such as Jeonju, Mokpo and Suncheon.

The KTO introduced its own brand of affordable hotels, called BENIKEA, in 2006 to address the wider problem, but the project drew criticism from media and lawmakers for lackluster promotion and scale.

Room for improvement

The KTO has also attracted the scorn of foreigners living here on occasion for what some have seen as stereotypical depictions of foreigners in its advertising.

“When we create the tourism advertisements about Korea for foreign media, we highlight the beauty of Korea rather than using stereotypes of foreigners,” said its spokeswomen. “Before producing the ads, we research views of foreigners through our overseas branch offices. Also, we reflect the views of foreigners on the results of surveys on foreign tourists ― for example, the International Visitor Survey issued each year.”

Koehler, who has worked in collaboration with the KTO, believes the agency has done a great job with a significant challenge, whatever room may remain for improvement.

“I think the KTO and other major tourism-related authorities have done a splendid job providing a wealth of information on a wide variety of tourism sites as well as on lodgings, dining, transportation, etc. I’m being honest here ― they really do. If there is room for improvement, it’s at the local level, where English language info about tourist sites in the locality is sometimes lacking.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

[The Korea Herald] Is domestic violence taken seriously in Korea?

The seemingly astronomical reported rates of domestic violence in Korea inspired this piece. While researching the article, I found it interesting to see how broadly domestic violence is defined, raising questions about the data behind the headlines. Such question are arguably worthy of a piece themselves. — John

By John Power

Domestic violence is often out of sight, occurring behind the closed doors of the family home. Nevertheless, national surveys on the issue suggest it happens with disturbing frequency.

According to the 2010 Korea National Survey of Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence, 53.8 percent of respondents who had been married had experienced spousal abuse in the previous year, and 16.7 percent had suffered physical abuse. Over the course of a marriage, the figures for physical abuse rose to 23.5 percent of respondents, with emotional abuse marking 50.7 percent, economic abuse 13.9 percent and sexual abuse 13.5 percent. For the purposes of the survey, spousal abuse was defined as including physical abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and controlling behavior. The overall rate of abuse in 2010 was up from previous national surveys from 2004 and 2007.

Private affair?

Despite the stark figures, many working in the area such as Choi Yong-ji of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center believe that neither society nor the authorities take the issue seriously enough.

“In Korea, society considers violence inside the family as a personal issue, not society’s issue to consider … Our center’s opinion is that society should consider it more seriously and the police should react more promptly to the issue. And because how the wives or the people who suffer from that kind of violence, their suffering is so great, we cannot consider it as a personal issue,” Choi said.

According to the 2010 survey, carried out by Yonsei University Graduate School of Social Welfare, 51 percent of victims considered their abuse to be a mild family problem. According to the same survey, police told victims to solve the violence through dialogue in more than 50 percent of cases reported to them. In almost 18 percent of cases, the police did not even come to the scene.

“… Because of how Korea considers wives as a personal belonging sometimes … even these days when the wives call the police because of violence of the husband, the police may come but they listen to the husband’s opinion that it is just a personal issue so just go back,” said Choi.

With what she deems low rates of prosecution at present, Choi doesn’t support tougher punishment for perpetrators. Instead, she believes, the culture of silence and acceptance of familial violence has to change.

New powers

The last year, however, has seen significant legal changes in how the authorities respond to reports of domestic violence. At the start of the month, police responding to reports of abuse gained new powers to enter homes without permission. This followed a revision in October allowing police to impose on-the-spot restraining orders.

“It has been pointed out the police’s intervention has not been positively done at the early stages of violence because family violence has been thought of as a light quarrel between husband and wife, and the institutional and legal foundation that allows police to actively intervene has been unsatisfactory,” the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family said in a statement.

“With these institutional improvements, police who respond to a report of family violence, to protect the victim, can positively take emergency measures, by entering the scene, ensuring the safety of the victim and investigating the conditions of violence.”

The ministry also said it has provided domestic violence awareness training to more than 2,000 police officers as of last year.

Han-kyun Kim, the director for research strategy at the Korean Institute of Criminology, accepts that there is an issue with the police response to domestic violence. But he rejects the suggestion that the matter is not taken seriously once it makes the courts.

“Some misunderstand that the Korean justice system does not treat the issue seriously, due to its traditional Confucian or paternalistic culture,” said Kim.

“It is true that criminal laws have their limitation in intervening in all domestic violence, as some of it may be a private matter. However, all international standards and norms Korea has ratified, its constitution, and special laws, such as the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Crimes of Domestic Violence of 2011 and Act of the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims of 2010, declare domestic violence a crime, and punish the offenders as deserved.”

Short of support

But even where abuse is taken seriously, support to help victims may come up short. Lee Mi-jeong, a researcher at Korean Women’s Development Institute, believes the current services available for victims are not sufficient.

“Based on the (domestic violence) law (passed) in 1997, the government provides shelters and counseling centers for the victims of domestic violence. But the resident shelter is quite limited; I think it is only six months. If the victim really needs to stay there the victim can have an extension. But the point is nowadays … once the violence happens, women get out of the house with their children, so they need some stable place to live in,” said Lee, adding that she supports recent government moves to help more victims stay in their own homes.

But she acknowledges that huge progress has been made in facing the problem, describing the passage of the 1997 law as a “revolutionary point.”

“In the meantime the attitude toward domestic violence has changed over time. I agree that, as we see in crime incidents nowadays, still the response of the policy is not enough. But if I observe over a long time span, it has been improved and it has been improving,” she said.

Lee also noted that women are not the only victims, despite common perceptions. Men and children also suffer abuse, although, in the case of the former, she said, the physical injuries sustained tend to be less severe. While there is a hotline for male victims of domestic violence in Korea, there are currently no shelters.

Broad definitions

The 2010 survey does not break down victims by gender, but last year there were 189 arrests for abuse of husbands, according to police figures. The figure for wives was 4,481. But even how domestic violence is defined can be contentious, with, for example, leaving a child alone in a room and yelling both classified as “psychological violence,” while treating a spouse with indifference constitutes “neglect” and therefore domestic violence.

“In Korea, the women’s movement started with this hotline for women victims,” said Lee. “They created a hotline for women battered by their husbands. The target group was wives. But in the meantime, as the government tried to help these victims, the target group extended. People tend to think that victims of domestic violence are women but that is not always true. We (also) need to think about the victims of domestic violence among children and adolescents.”

Violence against children, in particular, is culturally acceptable, Lee contends.

“If parents are in control it is OK, but many times this beating happens out of emotional outrage on the part of parents. I think violence against children is widespread in Korea. I think people do not perceive it seriously and also the children or adolescents themselves tend to take it naturally. I think that is a problem,” she said.

Lee stressed the magnitude of the problem of familial violence with an uncomfortable observation.

“You have a higher chance of getting hit within a family boundary than by a stranger outside.”