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[Newsmaker] New law strengthens punishment for stalkers, expands reach

Questions remain whether the new law will be effective in protecting victims and their families

Oct. 21, 2021 - 14:20 By Ko Jun-tae
View from the outside of a police station (Yonhap)
A new law came into effect Thursday in South Korea imposing stiffer penalties for stalkers, amid growing calls for tougher penalties for offenders.

Under the new legislation, stalkers can face up to three years in prison or 30 million won ($25,500) in fines. Up to five years in prison or a fine of 50 million won is possible if a weapon or other physically threatening means are used.

Before the law came, stalking was categorized as a misdemeanor, meaning a fine not exceeding 100,000 won or 29 days in jail were the maximum legal consequences. The weak penalties for offenders have been identified as a reason that stalking has remained common here, critics argue.

The new law also broadens the definition of stalking as a means to effectively address people who stalk, monitor and harass others in nontraditional channels.

Stalking has traditionally been defined as approaching, following or blocking a victim against his or her will, or waiting for or observing a victim within or near his or her residence, workplace or school. The new law stipulates these acts can also be penalized when done via online channels.

Continuously and repeatedly executing these actions will be considered as acts of stalking, the new law states.

The new law also mandates officials to introduce measures in preventing stalking from leading to more serious crimes, while separating stalkers from victims at an early stage.

Police are now allowed to issue restraining orders or take preemptive emergency response measures or other actions to stop potential suspects from approaching victims and apply for court authorization later on. Violators of restraining orders can face up to two years in prison.

At the same time, law enforcement officials will bring victims to protective facilities after starting the investigation into stalking offenses, and prosecutors can request the court to extend detainment of suspects if risks of additional crimes exist.

The new law, brought to attention 22 years after initially being proposed, came into effect to curb the growing number of reported stalking offenses and to provide solutions to major crimes that have grabbed headlines in recent years.

According to data from the National Police Agency, its officials were handling 583 stalking crime cases in 2019, up from 312 in 2013.

Public interest in responding to stalking crimes also increased following the arrest of Kim Tae-hyun, who murdered three women in the same family in March after stalking a woman he became acquainted with through an online game. He started stalking the woman after she cut contact with Kim.

He was sentenced to life in prison last week as the appeals court ruled his crime had been precisely premeditated and planned in advance.

Yet activists worry the new law may not be enough to effectively deter stalking crimes and to properly protect victims and their families.

As stalking is an offense for which punishment requires the victim’s cooperation, they worry many victims will give up seeking penalization for stalkers in fear of retaliation. Stalkers could add pressure to victims and their related ones to avoid punishment, which could lead to additional and more serious crimes.

Activist groups add the new law only categorizes victims as those to be protected from stalking crimes, which puts victims’ families, friends and other loved ones under threat and cornered.

“The government and legislature that prepared this law should have considered the responsibility of addressing the core nature of stalking crimes done as violence on women while assuring human rights of victims and their return to normal,” the Korea Women’s Hot Line said in a statement in March.

“The new law on penalizing stalking crimes only confirmed the government and legislature’s narrow recognition on violence against women. We demand a better law aimed at heavily penalizing assailants and assuring human rights protection of victims.”