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.

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Former teacher accused of sex with Cambodian minor was arrested in Korea, say former friends

This exclusive originally appeared in Groove Magazine. — John

A former native English teacher in Korea currently facing charges of paying a 14-year-old boy for sex in Cambodia was previously arrested in Seoul on suspicion of fondling a boy and had a history of sexual activity with minors, according to former friends and a recorded conversation.

Two former close friends of Canadian national Vadim Scott told Groove Korea that the suspect told them he had been arrested in Seoul in 2007, but was released after the parents declined to press charges. The law on sex crimes did not allow for prosecution without the complaint of the victim or their family until it was amended last year.

Scott, once a well-known native English teacher who appeared on more than a dozen episodes of the popular Korean television show “Surprise,” was arrested on Jan. 5 in Battambang, northwestern Cambodia, for allegedly having sex with a minor, The Phnom Penh Post reported. He is currently awaiting trial.

The sources, a former Canadian expat and an American currently teaching English in Seoul, claim that Scott revealed he was arrested at his apartment in Haebangchon, Yongsan district, in spring 2007 for molesting a minor after inviting two boys to his home. The exact nature of the alleged assault and age of the victim is unclear.

The Canadian source, who performed with the suspect on the live music scene here for several years, provided Groove Korea with a recording of a conversation in which he confronts Scott about the incident in Haebangchon and other behavior, and demands that he seek treatment. Two other former acquaintances separately identified the voice on the recording as belonging to Scott.

In the 40-minute-long recording, Scott claims that he invited the two boys to his house out of sympathy after he found them crying on the street because their father beat them. Insisting there had been no inappropriate contact at first, he claims they later returned to his house on their own accord.

“I had a minor in my bed who was not appropriately…who was too close to me, fair enough,” Scott says.

At several points in the recording, Scott quibbles with the use of terms such as “molesting,” “abuse” and “children,” claiming to have never engaged in sexual activity with anyone under 15. Challenging this claim, his friend responds that Scott had previously told a mutual friend that he had never been involved with anyone under 13. The age of consent in Korea is 13.

When his friend, referring to Scott repeatedly by name, defines “minors” as individuals under 18, Scott replies, “Yeah, I’ve been with minors.”

Later in the conversation, Scott denies any contact with underage individuals on a recent trip to Thailand, but later alludes to sexual contact with minors in Florida and acknowledges past possession of “questionable” pornography.

Scott, who insists he is “not hurting anyone right now” but had in the past, also complains of the difficulty of finding an English-speaking counselor in Korea and previously lacking the money to pay for one.

The former music partner of the suspect said he made the recording after he learned of his arrest and stumbled upon child pornography on his computer.

“I couldn’t sleep properly for a long time. ‘Was I doing enough?’ I wondered. The community was split, some not wanting to believe, some knew but chose to ignore his behavior,” he told Groove Korea via email on condition of anonymity.

He said he decided with several other foreign teachers to inform the Canadian Embassy in Seoul of the audio file and other allegations after failed attempts to get the police involved.

Louis Savoy, one of the group involved who is currently based in Turkey, spoke on the record about visiting the embassy after calling the police, who had him “put on hold while I overheard cops laughing about who was going to have to talk with the foreigner.”

“I thought if the embassy contacted the police on behalf of my complaint, more could get done. I prepared my statement, went to the Canadian Embassy and spoke with a consular officer who was typically Canadian — cordial, reasonable, and ready to excuse her inaction,” Savoy said.

“I explained that we had an incriminating recording, that Vadim was a Canadian citizen, that police weren’t listening to me. She told me this was not the type of thing the embassy dealt with. I should have asked her to give me a maple-leaf button. I remember feeling that she seemed concerned but that she wouldn’t help me, and in a sense, the system is designed against involvement.”

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An official at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul told Groove Korea she was unaware of the case, but “would not be in a position to release information” regardless. When asked how the embassy would generally handle such a complaint, she said the Canadian government in Ottawa would likely have to be consulted for instruction.

Savoy added that the allegations against Vadim were widely known among foreigners in Haebangchon.

“People talked indignantly but did nothing. I’m excluding a few people from this, including myself as well as anyone else who actually reacted towards a solution, but the general response seemed to be that the shock was public property while justice was an unrelated taboo,” he said in an email.

The widely reported death of English teacher William Kapoun in a house fire in Haebangchon in March 2008 later directed attention away from the issue within the community, he added.

Meanwhile, the second source claiming that Scott confessed to his arrest provided Groove Korea with a photo he took of Scott appearing to inappropriately grab a boy he had acted with in 2011. The American subsequently sent the photo, taken on a bus, to multiple recruiters for English teachers in Korea in March 2011, along with an email saying that he was unfit to teach children.

Scott left Korea about a year later in early 2012 and began teaching English in Thailand, where he had been living up until his arrest in Cambodia.

Additional email correspondence between Scott and the American indicates that the latter had pleaded with Scott to give up teaching and undergo counseling for his “psychological problem.”

“You should still not teach children. Period,” he wrote in one email, dated April 2011, going on to explain that he could no longer associate with Scott. The email also makes repeated references to his alleged inappropriate behavior with minors.

The Canadian source, who first met Scott in Canada in 2001, told Groove he had known his former friend and music partner for years before he suspected anything.

“At the time he claimed to enjoy being a ‘big brother’ type and I had no reason to doubt this. He was very well liked by the students he taught,” he said, adding that an incident in which Scott allegedly invited two young teens to sing karaoke while they were on vacation in Vietnam was his first warning sign.

Repeated attempts by Groove to confirm Scott’s arrest were denied by police at Yongsan on privacy grounds. One officer at Yongsan responded with incredulity when asked if there was a record of Scott’s arrest.

“There are many foreign people’s cases around here in Yongsan district. Then, how can we collect and recognize a case even from the year 2007? What you are trying to get does not make sense, actually. Yes, we don’t have that record! How could you find out about the record that we don’t know even exists?” he said.

“Even if the case was covered, it is too old and we normally don’t keep data that old. So, it’s strange that you want to find and access the report of whatever case it is.”

Another police officer at Yongsan said it was possible no record of the arrest exists because the police database was changed several years ago.

A written request for comment by Scott’s legal representative, Em Savann, was not returned after making contact by phone. Attempts to contact Scott directly by email were unsuccessful.

The photo above was reportedly distributed by Cambodian police. John Power is a journalist in Seoul. He can be contacted at johnpowermedia@gmail.com. His website is johnfrancispower.com.

[The Korea Herald] Is self-defense properly recognized?

By John Power

The Supreme Court in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul (The Korea Herald)

As an idea, the right to defend oneself from attack would appear uncontroversial. But in its framing in law and interpretation by legal authorities, the concept has at times been highly contentious, both here and abroad.

One of the most controversial cases involving self-defense in Korean legal history occurred in 1992, when a man who had habitually raped his step-daughter was killed by her boyfriend. The Supreme Court accepted that there had been a “threat of imminent harm” required for a plea of self-defense, but not that the response had been proportionate. The two were found guilty of murder.

Basic principles

“In self-defense, there are three basic principles or requirements involved: imminent threat of harm to the victim or a third party, proportionality, and intent to defend,” Kang Ju-won, a lawyer and member of the Korean Bar Association and the Seoul Bar Association, told Voice. “Here, ‘Imminent threat of harm’ refers to a situation where the threat is not a future threat; ‘proportionality’ refers to an amount of force that is reasonably necessary to prevent the present harm; and ‘intent to defend’ refers to the victim’s intent to use force as a means to defend as opposed to a means of attack.”

Korean courts have often been hesitant in recognizing pleas of self-defense, particularly in cases of mutual violence, such as fights.

“Korean courts have been passive in recognizing the principle of self-defense. Even though defendants contend justification for their crimes in quite many cases, courts precisely study the requirements of self-defense,” said Lee Ji-young, a public defender at the Anyang branch of Suwon District Court.

One reason why justifications of self-defense are rarely invoked successfully, according to Lee, is that the law places the burden of proof on the defendant to prove he was acting to defend himself.

“(He will need) defendant-friendly witnesses and recorded videos, etc., to prove his innocence or self-defense. In reality, defendants are not as skillful at collecting favorable evidence as the prosecution so they lose,” said Lee.

There are signs, however, that prosecutors and courts have been edging toward a more liberal interpretation of the concept. In October, a Prosecution-Citizen Committee decided not to press charges against a woman who bit off part of her would-be rapist’s tongue, recognizing her action to have been a legitimate act of self-defense. The citizens’ committee, introduced in 2010 to reflect public opinion in prosecutorial decisions, is roughly analogous to the grand jury system in the U.S.

“It has often happened that governmental power has not rescued citizens from random crimes … Therefore, it is cautiously predicted that the prosecution has been gradually (more) in favor of self-defense from a point of view of self-help,” said Lee.

Police guidelines

The Korean National Police Agency also recently revised its guidelines for identifying instances of self-defense. The agency outlines eight criteria in determining whether a case meets the requirements: The act must have been intended to defend; the defender must not have started the violence; The act of defending cannot be more violent than the attack itself; a deadly weapon was not used; further violence cannot be used after the attack; the defender cannot inflict more harm than the attacker; the act must not result in harm requiring more than three weeks of hospitalization.

“Although these factors may seem somewhat strict, they are usually taken into account as a whole,” said Kang. “Indeed, many view the new guidelines as an attempt to introduce a more lenient stance in acknowledging the argument of self-defense.”

Regardless, the principle’s application has shown marked differences from other jurisdictions. The killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in February drew attention to Florida’s stand your ground law, which permits the use of lethal force in cases where it “is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” Police controversially did not initially arrest the shooter, George Zimmerman, possibly using the rationale of the law. Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder by a special state prosecutor six weeks after the killing, following a massive public outcry.

Legal critics of Florida’s law and similar laws in other U.S. states argue that the provisions give free rein to people to kill based on perceived danger, whether or not the danger is real. Korean law, which, unlike American stand your ground laws, does not outline a justification for “deadly force,” permits only force proportionate with the aim of “repelling” an attacker. This standard also applies in using force against an intruder into your home, whereas many U.S. states have “castle” statutes that apply the stand your ground principle to property. Florida was the first state to expand the long-recognized castle doctrine to outside one’s property, presaging similar action by at least 25 other states.

“The amount of force entitled would differ depending on whether the intruder was carrying a deadly weapon, the intruder’s manner of breaking in, the type of threat used, or the number intruders involved,” said Kang. “In case of break-ins, the criteria of ‘imminent harm’ or ‘intent to defend’ would not be such a big issue. The key issue would be ‘proportionality.’ In other words, was the force used by the defender reasonably necessary, from an objective point of view, in ‘repelling’ the intruder?”

Legitimate self-defense

While Kang pointed out that Korea has relatively low violent crime compared to some other jurisdictions, he said that an overly restrictive conception of self-defense could inhibit victims of violence from legitimately defending themselves.

“We need to keep in mind that Korea is generally regarded to be one of the safer parts of the world with a relatively low number of violent crimes,” said Kang. “Still, I believe a rigid, mechanical interpretation of the law runs the risk of psychologically deterring people from resorting to force as a legitimate means of defending themselves.”

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

[The Korea Herald] Scam travel agent given 21/2 years

The final part of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John. 

By John Power

A travel agent who scammed some 65 foreign customers out of more than 170 million won ($147,000) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison at Seoul Eastern District Court on Tuesday.

Kang Wan-koo, who also goes by “Wystan,” was also fined an undisclosed amount of several million won.

Kang took millions of won from customers for non-existent flights through his company Zenith Travel, often claiming the bookings had been accidentally cancelled. Many of his victims only discovered they had no booking when they arrived at the airport to take their flight. Kang also embezzled some 60 million won in travel certificates allocated to him by an unnamed travel agency.

Kang was first arrested last October, almost nine weeks after the initial police complaint, but was released shortly after. He then continued his scam with a new company, Travel Expert, under the alias Joseph Kim. Kang was arrested again and indicted in mid-February, five weeks after The Korea Herald reported on Travel Expert.

The presiding judge, surnamed Lee, said that while Kang had no previous criminal record, his crimes were extremely serious. Lee noted that Kang had ruined a wedding ceremony, family gathering and honeymoon, causing great distress to his victims.

He added that he did not believe Kang regretted his crimes, despite him apologizing in court. The prosecution had requested a four-year prison sentence. Kang has seven days to appeal.

[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 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.”

[The Korea Herald] How effective are the police?

In April 2012, the brutal murder of a women in her 20s brought shame upon Korea’s police force. After receiving a call for help from the woman who had been kidnapped and locked inside a house in Suwon, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, the police failed to locate her location in time to save her. The outrage directed at the police over the case inspired this look at the overall record of the Korean National Police Agency. — John

By John Power and Kim Young-won

April has been a devastating month for the public image of the Korean National Police Agency. The bungled police response at the start of the month to an emergency call from a kidnap victim who was later murdered sparked public outrage. Public ire was further stoked with the revelation that the police in Suwon had attempted to cover up the extent of their incompetence with “brazen lies,” as described by KNPA commissioner general Cho Hyun-oh.

Criticism of police performance has come also from the very top. Last week, President Lee Myung-bak called for drastic police reform in the wake of the Suwon murder and revelations that officers in Seoul took bribes from room salon operators to turn a blind eye to prostitution.

These and other knocks to the reputation of the force have raised fundamental questions about the performance of the KNPA generally.

Lee Yoon-ho, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University, identifies the lack of promotional opportunities for the average officer as a source of inertia within the force.

“The lower-level police officers in Korea … they do not have enough motivation to be a good police officer because they know there will be not much chance for them to get promoted to higher ranks as they work because they are so many ways to become a police officer in Korea,” said Lee.

The key reason lower-ranked officers struggle to rise through the ranks, Lee said, is that most of the higher positions are filled with fresh graduates of the Korean National Police University in Yongin. The university produces about 120 graduates each year who start out at the lieutenant level. Rank-and-file officers instead must pass a written test, physical and an interview.

Major overhaul

In the Suwon case, much attention was paid to the 112 emergency operator’s poor handling of the victim’s call. Here too, Lee sees systemic problems.

“The dispatchers are not getting the appropriate education and training before they are dispatched to 112,” said Lee.

“Also, they do not have any experience as crime investigators because they are part of the security division rather than the investigations division so they are not familiar with the crime scene or crime investigation at all.”

Shortly after the murder, the KNPA announced it would deploy experienced officers to the emergency line, while Cho vowed a “major overhaul.”

Korean National Police Agency commissioner general Cho Hyun-o apologizes for the police response in the Suwon murder case at a press conference in Seoul in April. (Yonhap News)

A spokesman for the KNPA told The Korea Herald that it plans to increase the training period of operators. He said, however, that neither the timeframe nor the period had been decided and that Korea’s infrastructure for operator training is much less developed than the U.S., where operators undergo one year’s training.

A further impediment to effective policing is public mistrust, according to Dae-Hoon Kwak, an assistant professor at the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.

“Although the Korean National Police Agency has consistently tried to change its public image which is shown as an arm of the oppressive government, there has been little improvement in terms of public perception and public support,” Kwak said.

“Moreover, under the current government, these efforts have been gradually diminishing. Also, a couple years ago, South Koreans held candlelight vigils protesting beef import deal with U.S. At that time, the police force abused their power and authority and lots of civilians were arrested and detained because of their voluntary participation for the peaceful protest … I think this is a really serious problem, especially in the community policing era where police are working with citizens in order to respond to various social problems.”

The current training period of eight months is also relatively short by international comparisons, according to Kwak, but a far bigger problem is the recruitment process.

“A written exam ― including constitution law, criminal law, criminal procedural law, history, English and policing ― is the most crucial part of the hiring process rather than physical ability and employment aptitude. I think physical ability and vocational aptitude are more important aspects to be a successful police officer. Especially nowadays, police officers are required to perform a variety of daily tasks from helping citizens to fighting criminals.”

Lee of Dongguk University reinforced this view.

“You are commissioned first and then get education and training. You don’t need to have the police brain, you don’t need to have the police heart ― passion, you don’t need that. All that you need is to pass the exam,” he said.

Official data

Despite all the criticism directed at the police, official data paints a rather more positive picture. In fact, according to its own statistics, the KNPA is possibly one of the most effective police forces in the world. Its clearance rate, the portion of reported crimes for which charges are brought, for serious crime was 82.2 percent in 2009, far above the U.S., U.K. and Japan with 21.6, 25.6 and 30.2, respectively. Kwak cautioned, however, that the methods used by the KNPA in compiling their statistics, including the use of outdated definitions for investigative departments and crimes, cast doubt on their credibility. Clearance rate definitions can also vary by jurisdiction.

Even that considered, recent crime figures, it could be argued, also speak well of police effectiveness.

“In 2010, an estimated 1,860,687 crimes occurred nationwide, a decrease of 11 percent from the 2009 estimate,” said Kwak. “When considering 10-year trends, the 2010 crime total was 4 percent below the 2001 level. Based on these statistics, it can be concluded that the KNPA has done a decent job to decrease the total crime over the last decade. However, it should be noted that crime rates in other countries have declined as well.”

The effectiveness of the force has also increased significantly in recent years, according to Kwak Dae-Gyung, another professor of police administration at Dongguk University.

As an example, he points to the adoption and tweaking of the Computer Statistics system, or Compstat, first used by the New York City Police Department. Under the system, reports of crime and arrests are inputted into a computer database each week and analyzed to identify established and emerging crime patterns. While research on its precise effect on crime is scarce, its implement in New York and other U.S. cities such as Minneapolis coincided with reductions in crime.

“The Korean system is quite different from the New York system but … now the Korean police agency can utilize computer technology and communication technology,” Kwak said.

Political independence

In another import from the U.S., Korean police also adopted wider patrol areas in recent years, Kwak said, making for a more efficient use of manpower. More fundamentally, he believes that newer recruits are substantially more competent and suited to the job than many of their older colleagues. He points in particular to the mass hiring of officers with little in the way of training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, many of whom are in the higher ranks of the force today.

“I think the atmosphere among new police officers is quiet different … At that time, the Korean police agency needed many police officers to cover this national event. At the time, the KNPA hired around 10,000 or 20,000 people … there were many police officers who were not qualified at that time.”

The KNPA spokesman pointed to actions in recent years such as the reorganizing of middle rank officers and hiring more personnel, as well as securing additional funds for investigations and new patrol cars and uniforms.

A number of laws have been strengthened, too, he said, including in the areas of apprehending people under the influence who disturb the peace and collection of information about missing children. Regarding discipline in the force, roughly 1,000 officers, less than 1 percent of the almost 130,000 officers including conscripts in the country, receive some form of sanction each year for transgressions ranging from the minor to the serious.

He noted that the training period for officers was increased from six months to eight last year, while the duration of fieldwork went from four weeks to six. In 2010, new programs were established training officers in investigating, fingerprinting and answering emergency calls.

Dongguk University’s Kwak, who believes the police statistics speak for the effectiveness of the force generally, sees no issue with the current training period of officers. But he does have concerns about political independence.

“Political considerations usually come first when the Korea police office decides on situations because the Korean police system is a centralized, national system. High-ranking police officers are quite sensitive and they try to attune to the opinions of big-power politicians.”