Expats’ place in Korean society and their response to claims of sexual abuse

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek Korea. — John.

On January 6, it was reported in the Cambodia press that a former native English teacher in Korea had been arrested in the country on charges of paying a 14-year-old boy for sex. Before long, rumors surfaced online about the Canadian’s conduct with minors during his decade living in Korea. My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the validity of these claims. As I dug into the speculation over the course of a month, it became clear that it was more than idle gossip: an overwhelming trail of evidence implicated the former expat here in sexual contact with underage boys. Other compelling evidence suggested failures by the police and acquaintances to act on credible suspicions against the individual.

On strict condition of anonymity, two former close friends of the Canadian, formerly a minor celebrity on Korean television, revealed that he had admitted to them to being arrested in Seoul in 2007 on suspicion of fondling a boy. Afraid of bringing shame on the family, the parents of the alleged victim declined to press charges, the sources said. More damning still was a recording of a conversation provided by one source, in which he confronted the Canadian about his sexual activities with minors. In the 40-minute recording, the former Seoul resident could be heard admitting to sex acts with minors in Korea and the United States.

Perhaps most concerning of all was the picture of inaction and apathy — among both acquaintances of the former expat and the authorities — painted by people close to the story. It is true that the law at the time would have prevented charges from being brought against the Canadian for the alleged incident in 2007 without a parental complaint. Nevertheless, additional evidence secured in the years after his arrest such as the recording was not taken seriously by the authorities, according to my interviews. One fellow foreign English teacher, who knew of the compromising recording, claimed to have contacted the police, only to be put on hold and “hear cops laughing about who was going to have to talk to the foreigner.” Disheartened by their lack of action, he and some fellow like-minded foreigners decided to bring their concerns to the Canadian embassy in Seoul.

He said they were told that it was not something they could deal with, a claim that would appear to be accurate at least in so far as not having the authority to investigate or prosecute a criminal case. The question of whether diplomatic pressure could have been put on the Korean authorities is more difficult to brush off. Moreover, Canadian law actually allows for prosecution of citizens involved in sexual activity with minors abroad, even if such activity is legal in the country in which it takes place. To this end, the Canadian government’s own website actually recommends that people with suspicions about Canadians abroad contact their embassy with their concerns.

Another fellow English teacher eventually resorted to circulating an email to numerous recruiters of English teachers in which he labeled the Canadian unfit to teach children and implored potential employers to give him wide berth. The Canadian left Korea about a year later to teach in Thailand, where he had been residing until his arrest while on holiday in Cambodia. All of these developments, backed by multiple sources, are outlined in detail in my long article published in expat magazine Groove Korea on January 28.

Apart from the specifics of the case, the allegations raise serious concerns about procedures to deal with suspected sex offenders generally. First, there are obvious questions for the police, which, it is claimed, were far from receptive to well-founded concerns about a teacher’s interactions with minors. Further, my attempts to confirm the suspect’s arrest in Korea with the police produced a troubling response: while, perhaps predictably, no confirmation could be provided on privacy grounds, the police were unsure if such a record would even exist.

Two reasons were given for why there might not be any file on the arrest: the police database had been changed in recent years, and records that old were generally not kept anyway. It seems astonishing that it could be impossible to verify the arrest of a suspected child sex offender just seven years ago. While it cannot be said with certainty that no file exists as the police simply refused to check, their own comments hint at major weaknesses in the database.

The second area of concern regards the connection that foreigners, in this case some teachers from Western countries, have to their host society. Foreigners living in Korea often remark that they are perpetual outsiders. The case above goes some way to suggest that this is the case, though not necessarily because of their host nation alone. On one hand, it is claimed, numerous foreigners aware of the allegations against a teacher in their midst were hesitant to act. It is not certain why this might be the case, but a plausible reason might be concerns that such impropriety would negatively impact the image of foreigners in Korea. Such fears were expressed to me on several occasions when I discussed the story with other foreigners. One foreigner, himself a journalist with one of the local English-language newspapers, very publicly threatened violence against me on social media for supposedly providing another reason for foreigners “to be ostracized and given the short shaft.” Such an attitude suggests a detachment from the wider community, with greater concern given to the potential fallout for a minority of foreigners than the safety of any number of Korean minors. On the other side of the cultural divide, the alleged response of the police equally reinforced the status of foreigners as outsiders. Credible reports from foreigners were seemingly not to be taken seriously. The very idea of a foreigner contacting the police was worthy of laughter.

Ultimately, a situation where foreigners remain at the periphery of Korean society is in the interest of neither Koreans nor foreigners. More than that, it can literally be dangerous.