Imagine this. After a late evening golf practice, you light a cigarette and walk into the parking lot. Then, you hear a scream of a woman and see a pair of legs sticking out of one car. What would you do?
On June 24, a woman surnamed Kim was abducted and murdered after her golf practice in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. Three suspects, one woman and two men, allegedly forced Kim into their car as she was returning to her car, an Audi. One male suspect, the only one who has been arrested, reportedly said they had targeted Kim for robbery because she was a woman with an expensive car. They filled her mouth with a pair of stockings before duct-taping it closed, and bound her ankles and wrists. Her body was found a few days later underneath a bridge.
But her life could’ve been saved, if only the sole passerby had intervened or called the police. Instead he brushed off the scene as just another case of domestic violence. And in South Korea domestic violence still isn’t taken seriously, because it’s all too common, and considered a private matter.
South Korea is not a particularly unsafe place. The overall crime rate is low and the murder rate is among the lowest in the world, with fewer than one murder per 100,000 people each year. The global average, reported in 2013, was 6.2.
But when it comes to violence against women by romantic partners, it’s a different story.
According to Korea Women’s Hotline, a non-governmental organization that campaigns to end violence against women, in 2015 at least 91 women were murdered by their romantic partners while another 95 survived murder attempts. To put this into perspective, fewer than 360 South Koreans died from homicide that same year. The organization collected data only from news reports, meaning there may have been more victims.
The passerby’s indifference also shows South Koreans’ general perception of domestic violence: it’s none of my business.
While domestic violence that occurs behind closed doors is mostly out of authorities’ reach, even when it takes place in public, violence between partners is often deemed a private matter. As in the recent case in the parking lot, strangers often turn a blind eye to violence between a couple, and even when the police do get involved, some merely exhort the couple to reconcile rather than appealing to law.
In recent years, the government has been treating domestic violence as something more than a private issue. In 2011, the law to prevent domestic violence — enacted in 1997 — was revised to allow police to take measures when they identify a risk of recurring violence, including separating the offender from the victim and issuing restraining orders.
But acceptance of domestic violence and culture of silence are pervasive. Even victims regard the violence they suffer as a private matter, choosing not to report violence at home. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s 2016 survey on domestic violence, over two-thirds of domestic violence victims (both men and women) didn’t take action, while only one percent said that they asked for help. Female respondents who didn’t run away, physically defend themselves or ask for help said they preferred to just get through the moment, didn’t want to report their spouses, or were simply too ashamed to admit having suffered domestic violence. Among the small fraction of victims who did seek help, less than two percent went to the police. Shelters for domestic violence victims were also an unpopular option; less than one percent of victims said they had used such a shelter.
“Perceiving that it’s not just an ‘argument’ but ‘violence’ between two people in unequal power relations is essential. And the domestic violence act should be revised accordingly. The law was created 20 years ago to prevent families from breaking up. [But] the purpose of the act should be to protect the victim, not the family,” Byeon Hyeon-joo, the head of Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea told Korea Exposé.
Cover image: Violence by romantic partners is a serious issue in South Korea, but most don’t seem to take it seriously. (Source: Rusty Frank/Wikimedia Commons)