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Why Korean crime stories typically feature nameless, faceless perpetrators

Korean media constrained by complex legal issues, concerns about witch-hunting, and stigmatization

May 16, 2024 - 15:29 By Shin Ji-hye
A suspect in the murder of a Korean national in Thailand covers his face with clothes as he is escorted by Korean police for an interrogation Wednesday, in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, where he was caught. In Thai media, his name and face have been publicly disclosed. (Yonhap)

When opposition leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck in a failed assassination attempt in January, the South Korean public remained in the dark about the assailant’s identity, including his name and occupation, until the New York Times disclosed the information.

In April, when a Korean NASA engineer was charged in the US with a series of rapes, his name, age and photos were disseminated in US media. But in local media, the Korean suspect was cloaked in anonymity, with his photos pixelated.

Many previous cases followed the same pattern, including a 2021 case involving a Korean student at the University of Manchester in England, who was caught filming women without their consent around campus.

“It’s not because the Korean media are passive,” said Kim Chang-suk, a professor in the Department of Media & Communication at Kyung Hee University. “Legal constraints make it difficult for them to disclose personal information. The media here would be risking violating laws to do (what foreign media do).”

Under Korean criminal law, the disclosure of a suspect’s identity by investigative authorities or the media is generally not allowed. A violation of this could result in jail terms for up to three years, although enforcement of this provision is rare.

So, anonymity is the base case for crime news in South Korea.

Suspects or convicted criminals are identified only by their surnames, and sometimes, to further eliminate any possibility of identifying them, the perpetrators are referred to as A, B, or C. TV shows covering real crime stories usually employ aliases.

A combination of images showing foreign media outlets coverage of crimes involving Korean nationals. All three disclose the faces of suspects with their full names, although their faces have been pixelated for print here by The Korea Herald.

Pushback against anonymity

Until the mid-1990s, Korean media had no reservations about disclosing the personal information of suspects. But, a Supreme Court ruling in 1998 set the country’s course for strict privacy protection of suspects.

In its ruling in favor of a former suspect later cleared of charges at trial, the top court stated, “It is not necessary to explicitly identify the suspects in order to report the crime. Reporting real names cannot be seen as having the same public interest value as reporting crime.”

As police rectified its practices to comply with the top court’s judgment, two infamous serial killers of the early 2000s, who we now know as Yoo Young-chul, caught in 2004, and Jeong Nam-gyu, caught in 2006, were initially shielded from public scrutiny during the investigation of their crimes.

In 2009, when another serial killer, Kang Ho-soon, was caught, two major newspapers decided that the public needed to know and published his face, prompting other media to follow suit.

This led to the introduction of a system that allows for the disclosure of personal information in cases of serious crimes, though only after a thorough review by a special committee.

Keeping suspects from the public eye has not been a popular policy.

According to a survey conducted by the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission in July last year, 96 percent of the 7,474 respondents agreed with the need to further expand the disclosure of personal information of criminals.

“Since the media and authorities do not disclose such information, there is an increase in private-level disclosures,” said Kyung Hee University professor Kim, noting how YouTube and cyberspace provide a venue for such revelations.

Once a certain YouTube channel exposes the identity of the suspects in some high-profile cases, it is reported in the news, which inadvertently drives viewership of such content, the professor said. She expressed concern that this practice is becoming more entrenched.

In September last year, the YouTube channel Caracula revealed the personal details of a man accused of assaulting a woman with apparent intent to rape in Busan in 2022. This man had drawn significant media attention for his unrepentant and menacing demeanor, even hinting at seeking revenge upon his release from jail. The channel disclosed his photo, name, birth date, occupation, height, and even his criminal history.

More recently, in early May, the personal details of a man who fatally stabbed his girlfriend on the rooftop of a Gangnam building in Seoul were widely disseminated online, after it was revealed on Digital Prison, a website purported to punish perpetrators of horrendous crimes by publicly releasing their identities.

Although police decided not to disclose his personal information, this person’s name, face and even his family’s details are now being circulated online. The suspect had achieved a perfect score on the national college entrance exam several years ago and had been interviewed by multiple newspapers and broadcasters, with the content of those interviews still accessible.

This image, originally taken from Thai media outlet The Nation's coverage of an alleged murder of a Korean national, has been altered by a Korean media outlet to obscure the identities of two Korean suspects. (The Nation)

Cultural implications

In the US and Japan, the names and faces of heinous criminals with clear evidence against them are disclosed by the police from the investigation stage. They are viewed not as ordinary individuals but as public figures, professor Kim said.

Aside from local laws that provide suspects with the protection of anonymity, along with the presumption of innocence, some experts say the Korean culture is an important factor to consider when discussing identity disclosure.

“Unlike Western countries, which have more individualistic cultures, Korea’s group-oriented culture results in a more emotional and sensitive response to such disclosures, and the effects of stigmatization are significant,” said Gong Jung-sik, a professor in the criminal psychology department at Kyonggi University.

"There are numerous instances in Korea where individuals have committed suicide after their personal information was indiscriminately revealed online in 'witch-hunts' (harassment campaigns),” he said.

One such example would be the death of a public official from the Gimpo municipal government in March. The official ended his own life after being targeted online as the person responsible for causing traffic disruptions by permitting construction work on the road.

In another example that grabbed global headlines, in late 2023, "Parasite" actor Lee Sun-kyun died by suicide after coming under intense public scrutiny while undergoing a drug-related investigation involving bar girls.

Pyo Si-young, a professor in the Media and Communication Department at Gangwon University, said there’s a prevailing belief among Koreans that heinous criminals deserve to be publicly shamed.

“This belief is often behind the public demand for the disclosure of the perpetrator’s identity. It is often a way of expressing collective outrage,” the scholar said.

In Korea, where reputation or public image holds significant weight, simply disclosing the name of a person in relation to a deplorable act can be considered a form of punishment, let alone a photograph.

In fact, identity disclosures are being utilized as a punitive measure here, applicable to divorced parents who have failed to pay child support, tax delinquents and convicted child sex offenders.

Ordinary people, not just suspects, are often reluctant to have their names or photographs disclosed in the media, even if the articles do not cover negative stories.

When Korean media show pictures of commuters, the faces of the people are all blurred out. When Afghans fleeing the threat of the Taliban arrived in Korea in 2021, foreign media published their relieved faces, but all Korean media outlets blurred their faces, as they normally do when releasing photos of ordinary people.

Kim Joong-baeck, a professor in the sociology department at Kyung Hee University, points out that Koreans do not seem to be concerned very much about privacy issues or the provision of their personal information to businesses for marketing or other purposes, while they are sensitive about it being exposed in the media.

“This sensitivity stems from their past experiences of seeing information being overly generalized in the media, used to defame someone, leading to witch hunts, or spreading uncontrollably through social media,” Kim said. “There are also many instances where incorrect information is not adequately corrected in the media.”