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.