Despite the Yoon Suk Yeol government's pledge to crack down on crimes against women, concerns are growing over the women's safety following a spate of gender-based violence cases.
The tragic death of 38-year-old Lee Eun-chong, who was murdered by her former coworker and boyfriend after being stalked, stirred criticism over a lack of practical protection for victims of gender-based crimes under South Korean law. In Lee's case, she had been granted a temporary restraining order to prohibit her ex-boyfriend from getting close to her, but he was still able to kill her.
In July, Lee was fatally stabbed in front of her home in Incheon. She had reportedly tried to end the relationship with her killer due to his physically abusive behavior.
An online post in early September -- purportedly by Lee's bereaved family -- indicated that Lee had been given a wearable electronic device to alert the police in case of an emergency. However, the post claimed that Lee was asked by police to return the device just four days before she died. The police denied the claim.
Some 44,000 petitions have been filed as the trial for the case began on Sept. 19, calling for tougher punishment for the perpetrator.
Rising fears over gender-based violence have been fueled by the tendency of Korean courts to take mitigating factors into account when sentencing assailants in gender-based violence cases.
This is illustrated by the so-called "roundhouse kick" incident, where a man attacked and attempted to rape and murder a woman in Busan in February 2022.
The man, who had an extensive criminal record of 18 prior convictions, was given 20 years in prison by an appellate court in June, a far lighter sentence than the 35 years sought by the prosecution. The victim said she believed the judges took into account the offender's family background, specifically his parents' divorce, when determining his sentence.
The case drew media attention after the victim uploaded a post online titled, "I'll be dead in 12 years," which portrayed her fear of being murdered as soon as the assailant gets released after jail term and approaches her in retaliation for his punishment. The post went viral following an initial lower court ruling that handed down a 12-year sentence to the offender. Amid widespread public attention, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the 20-year sentence handed down by the appellate court.
The case reflects South Korea's systemic failure to deliver harsh sentences to perpetrators of gender-based crimes, according to Nam Eon-ho of the local law firm Vincent, who defended the victim of the roundhouse kick incident.
"Severe punishments are (needed) for those who committed violent crimes, but those criminals manage to evade harsh sentences by defending themselves with extenuating factors such as letters of apology, a history of mental illness and proof that the crime was not premeditated," Nam said after the Supreme Court ruling.
"Now it is time for (the courts) to start proactively taking aggravating factors into account during sentencing, rather than (looking at) the extenuating factors."
"Lighter sentences may have paved the way for a string of copycat crimes to happen," he added, referring to a high-profile rape and murder committed by a 30-year-old man named Choi Yun-jong in southern Seoul earlier this year. Choi is accused of fatally attacking an elementary school teacher in her 30s, a stranger to him, on a walking trail in Seoul.
Lee Chang-hyun, a criminal law professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School echoed this view, saying that leniency for criminals might deteriorate public trust toward the nation's legal mechanisms and systems of crime deterrence.
"Adequate sentencing for criminals will make potential offenders fear the criminal justice system, but now it seems things are working in the opposite way," he said.
Lee stressed that violators of temporary restraining orders in family violence and stalking cases, in particular, must face stern legal consequences, given that police resources are limited when it comes to monitoring each and every temporary restraining order.
Solidarity for change
In a bid to take a more systemic approach, South Korea is working to determine what behaviors constitute an abusive pattern in offenders, and how to adequately train judges, court staff, police officers and other support organizations to identify the risk factors and protections needed.
There is also room for improvement when it comes to the efficacy of temporary restraining orders in deterring offenders from making contact with victims. There have been repeated calls, including from the unnamed victim of the roundhouse kick incident to allow police to use GPS tracking devices on both gender-based crime and stalking offenders and their victims. Under the current system, only victims are able to use the devices to alert police in an emergency, and these devices cannot detect the location of the offenders automatically.
But experts stressed that deterring crime through legislation and law enforcement systems is only a small part of the puzzle.
"I wouldn't try to look at (legal mechamisms, including temporary restraining orders) as a panacea to end abuse against women, but rather as a tool to try to keep someone safe in a specific situation," said Michelle Robles-Torres, deputy legal director of WomensLaw at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Robles-Torres added that "legal realization" by itself doesn't change the deep-rooted collective consciousness or the systematic issues.
Instead, solidarity and consolidated public support can help build a society that takes violence against women seriously.
The victim of the roundhouse kick incident attended the Lee Eun-chong murder trial on Sept. 19 in Incheon, just two days ahead of the final ruling in her own case.
Following the Thursday ruling, the victim said that other victims attended the Incheon trial to "find solace by just standing together with people who were victimized in similar heinous crimes."
The victim said she felt isolated following the initial court hearing on her case.
"Please don't see these incidents as the sufferings of people you feel pity for," she said on Thursday. "Please pay attention to these matters, because incidents like this could happen to you."
"The conversation is so much bigger than the need for stronger punishments. ... Women are safer from abuse when there's a collective effort to prioritize their safety," Robles-Torres said.