The Koreas | Society | East Asia

Sindang Murder Underscores South Korea’s Weak Protections for Women

Repeated murders prove that South Korea needs a stronger legal system to combat stalking and other gender-based crimes.

Sindang Murder Underscores South Korea’s Weak Protections for Women
Credit: Pixabay

On September 14, a female subway worker was murdered by her ex-coworker in Sindang Station. The 28-year-old victim had filed a restraining order against the murderer and was waiting on the sentencing announcement, scheduled a day later.

The incident sent shockwaves through Korean society, deepening existing fractures along gender lines. It also reignited criticisms of the South Korean government’s failure to properly address stalking crimes and violence against women.

The incident reminded many of a prior 2016 case, in which a  woman was killed in Gangnam Station by a stranger who felt “belittled” by women – a now infamous case that brought heinous “Don’t Ask” crimes to the forefront of South Korean public discourse. At the time, prosecutors were hesitant to label it a hate-based crime.

Last November, a woman was stabbed to death in her apartment by her ex-boyfriend, even after reporting him for stalking. In February of this year, a 40-year-old woman was stabbed by her boyfriend at a bar. Both women were under police protection and wore smartwatches to report emergencies.

Questions about the efficacy of anti-stalking laws were raised again when a man murdered a woman he met online, also killing her mother and sister. The prosecution’s request for the death penalty was denied since the offender acknowledged his crimes and had no serious prior record.

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South Korean police have been harshly criticized for their repeated failures to protect victims of stalking and other gender-based crimes. Under the country’s current anti-stalking law, police are able to take measures in response to acts of stalking, such as providing protection shelters for victims during the investigation and issuing restraining orders banning potential suspects from coming within 100 meters of the victim or having any online contact. The Ministry of Justice also expanded the scope of monitoring devices for criminals to include stalkers as well.

However, outdated perceptions of stalking cases as lovers’ spats or private disagreements influence the immediacy of the police response, which is particularly egregious as victims must go through the police to file reports.

While some blame rightly falls on the police, this is a problem that requires top-down systemic change, starting with the National Assembly. After the Sindang murder, President Yoon Suk-yeol acknowledged the limitations of the law, and announced that he would order the Ministry of Justice to supplement current legislation. The Stalking Punishment Act was introduced in 1999 and was enacted 22 years later, in October of last year. Before then, stalking was considered only a misdemeanor punished with fines not exceeding $100. Under the Stalking Punishment Act, serious offenders could serve up to five years in prison and be fined up to $44,000.

There is a serious loophole in the act, however – the “anti-willing punishment” clause, meaning that perpetrators will not be punished without the explicit consent of the victim. Civic groups have strongly criticized this, as it leaves victims vulnerable to pressure from offenders to withdraw claims under threat of retaliation. Some argue that the removal of this provision could have prevented the Sindang case entirely.

An amendment called The Stalking Victims Protection Act was proposed in April, but review began on September 16, only after the Sindang murder case. This bill would be a separate legislation from the Stalking Punishment Act, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. The Stalking Victims Protection Act aims to expand the scope of victims and fill in the gaps left by the Stalking Punishment Act by offering protection to families of stalking victims as well.

The political response to the situation in South Korea has been divisive. City Councilor Lee Sang-hoon of the Democratic Party of Korea (DP) was suspended for six months after his comments portraying the perpetrator as a scorned lover, which led to public backlash forcing the party to take disciplinary action. Though newly elected DP chairperson Lee Jae-myung enforced Councilor Lee’s punishment, he himself has yet to publicly address the issue.

Kim Hyun-sook, head of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), also stirred controversy when she stated that she did not believe the incident was a hate crime motivated by gender. Kim’s comments questioning the victim for not using the services offered by MOGEF were seen as expecting victims to protect themselves. That stance drew fire especially because the Yoon administration has remained steadfast on promises to eventually abolish the ministry altogether. Women’s rights groups and the progressive Green and Jinbo parties called for Kim to resign, while the DP urged Yoon to withdraw his plans to abolish MOGEF.

For women’s rights groups and female politicians, the repeated tragedies not only emphasize the gender problems within South Korean society but further reinforce the continued need for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Park Ji-hyun, a former co-chair of the DP emergency steering committee, stated that countermeasures against stalking crimes are more focused on punishing offenders than on protecting victims. Representative Chung Chun-sook, who introduced the Stalking Punishment Act, argued that while the Ministry of Justice enforces laws to punish perpetrators, it is MOGEF that supports victims.

If MOGEF was to be abolished, its functions would be split between the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health and Welfare. With the gender imbalance in South Korean politics, the fear is that issues specific to women would receive even less attention than they currently do without a dedicated ministry. More importantly, issues that directly threaten the safety and well-being of women should be seen as human rights issues and will need commitments from both law enforcement and political leaders.