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Why femicide and dating violence are growing issues in S. Korea

Experts call for clear legal framework to prosecute perpetrators and protect women

May 8, 2024 - 15:50 By Lee Jaeeun
A medical student suspected of having stabbed his girlfriend to death is taken to the Seoul Central District Court to attend his arrest warrant hearing, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

In recent months, a wave of murders targeting ex-girlfriends has not only sent shock waves across the country but has also raised questions about why these incidents occur and how such a crime can be prevented.

The murder of a woman in her 20s by her boyfriend on Monday atop a building near Gangnam Station in Seoul, which occurred following her request to end the relationship, tragically mirrors a distressing trend of similar incidents.

The suspect, whom the authorities only identified as a 20-something male student at one of the country's top medical schools, later reportedly confessed to the police that he stabbed his girlfriend multiple times after she tried to break up with him. Police said late Tuesday that they had requested an arrest warrant for the suspect.

Monday's femicide was the latest in a list of similar crimes.

In South Korea, femicide often unfolds within intimate relationships, leaving countless women in perpetual fear. Even post-breakup, the threat of an ex-boyfriend returning to harass or harm them often casts a shadow.

Given the pervasive nature of domestic violence in intimate relationships, women here view breakups without violent repercussions as rare, commonly referring to them as "safe breakups."

“There is this notion of ‘safe breakup’ that women talk about in Korea. My friends advised me not to break up with my boyfriend in a private place alone and rather to say goodbye in a very public space, such as a crowded cafe, in order to have a safe breakup,” said a 33-year-old woman surnamed Ryu in Seoul.

Recent cases serve as grim reminders of a troubling reality.

About a month ago, a 19-year-old man in Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province, broke into the house of his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend, assaulting her on April 1, authorities said. He allegedly hit her in the face and body so severely that he caused a cerebral hemorrhage, which ultimately led to her death on April 10.

The victim and the assailant attended the same high school and had been in an on-and-off relationship for three years, characterized by frequent conflict.

Similarly, on March 25 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, a 26-year-old man named Kim Re-ah was accused of fatally stabbing his 21-year-old girlfriend following her decision to end their relationship.

During the altercation, Kim also attacked the girlfriend's 46-year-old mother, leaving her hospitalized for weeks with severe injuries. Local reports suggest that the crime occurred after the girlfriend had attempted to break up with Kim due to his history of violence.

In 2021, a total of 692 murders or attempted murders were reported, with 9.3 percent occurring within close relationships, such as marriage or dating relationships, according to data from the Supreme Prosecutors' Office. Of the 650 victims whose gender was identified, 270 were women.

The National Police Agency reported 57,297 cases of dating violence in 2021, triple the number from the previous year. The number of arrests following allegations of dating violence rose 26.1 percent over five years from 8,367 in 2016 to 10,554 in 2021, and a further 21.6 percent in just one year to 12,841 in 2022.

This pattern may be attributed to changes in social perception that any violence such as stalking, obsession, and gaslighting, between men and women who are in intimate relationships, constitutes a crime.

“Many Koreans did not know exactly what dating violence was before. In the past, people didn’t know if they should call such behavior between romantic partners an ‘expression of affection,’ but now they are aware that unwanted behavior is called 'violence,'” Jang Mi-hye, a senior researcher for the state-run Korean Women's Development Institute, said.

“Gender-based violence existed in the past as much as it does today, but because of the increasing awareness of violence as a serious crime, people are reporting it to the police. That's the difference."

An analysis by Korea Women’s Hotline, a non-profit civic group for protecting women's rights, found that there were 138 cases of women killed by men in intimate relationships, such as husbands or male partners, last year -- and that was just those reported in the press.

Another 311 women survived attempts on their lives, bringing the total number of femicides and attempted femicides in intimate relationships up to 449. In other words, in Korea, a woman is killed or almost killed by a man in a close relationship with her every 19 hours.

Korea Women’s Hotline noted that men’s reasons for killing women “might look different at first, but basically, they’re all tied to a simple reason: the woman didn’t do what the man wanted her to do.”

Gong Jung-sik, a criminal psychology professor at Kyonggi University, stressed that patriarchal thinking and discriminatory perceptions of women are the main reasons for femicides and attempted femicides by intimate male partners here.

“In the case of femicide perpetrated by one's partner, the perpetrator's patriarchal thinking and discriminatory perceptions of women are a big reason for the incident,” Gong told Yonhap News Agency. “If there is sufficient evidence proving that the perpetrator has harassed the victim, (the authorities) should intervene,” Gong added.

Korea currently lacks legislation specifically addressing femicide or dating violence by intimate partners, despite the presence of several related proposed bills awaiting approval.

Experts stress the urgent need to raise awareness of dating violence and establish a clear legal framework to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims.

“Although dating violence and stalking crimes have gotten more attention in recent years, Korea has been slow to respond with gender-based violence legislation," Yoon Jeong-sook, a senior researcher for the state-run Korea Institute of Criminology and Justice, said.

"It's fine to debate whether to incorporate dating violence into the Domestic Violence Act or create a separate law, but either way, it's important to pass it quickly to cover this gap,” Yoon said.

Staff reporter Jung Min-kyung contributed to this article. -- Ed.