Police officers lining a road as residents and members of the media gather following the apprehension of a suspect in a high-profile rape case in the southwestern city of Naju, after a seven-year-old girl was abducted on August 30 from her home and raped.
The kidnap and rape of a 7-year-old girl in Naju, South Jeolla Province, earlier this month has reopened the debate on how to deal with society's most reviled criminals. Like the case of Cho Doo-soon, who brutally raped an 8-year-old girl in 2008, Ko Jong-seok's heinous act has sparked a raft of proposals from lawmakers and law enforcement to deal with those who prey on children. In the days after the attack, the National Police Agency announced one month of increased police patrols and a crackdown on child pornography, while a lawmaker from the Saenuri Party, Rep. Park In-sook, proposed a bill that would allow for the physical castration of child rapists.
"How much these children suffer is unbelievably much, much more than the penalty they (the perpetrators) receive from the judge," Park, a cardiologist by profession, told The Korea Herald on Friday.
Park rejected the suggestion that the procedure would be at odds with the principles of a civilized society, adding that it has few side effects and does not even require a general anesthetic.
"These children live with permanent damage, physically, mentally, and psychologically, neurologically … and economically … So if you compare the human rights of these criminals with the victims, whose human rights are more important? Who should be protected? It is just incomparable," she said, pointing out that Finland, the Czech Republic and Germany, among other countries, allow the practice.
Park, who has also proposed the introduction of a smartphone application that would alert users to the location of convicted sex offenders within a 1 km radius, added that a recent opinion poll showed that 96 per cent of Koreans support her castration bill proposal.
"This is the philosophy I had all my life but I had no chance to speak to the public until I came to the National Assembly," she said. "Also, the important thing is these crimes are getting worse and becoming more often."
When it comes to an effective legal response to those who target children, understanding more about the scale and nature of the problem is crucial, said Korean Institute of Criminology research fellow Kim Han-kyun.
"The first step we need to take is to study and research the real reality of pedophiles and sex offenders against children in our society, then we may have specific and substantive measures against pedophiles," said Kim. "But the problem is no one knows yet how many pedophiles there are in our society and (how) serious the problem of pedophiles is now at the moment in our society."
While it is unclear how many pedophiles exist in Korea ― US estimates put the figure there at around 4 per cent of the population ― recorded sex crimes against the young have risen in recent years. The number of cases of sexual assault and rape against minors soared from 857 in 2007 to 2,054 last year. Even more strikingly, the offender in 43 per cent of cases from January to June 2011 involving victims under 13 received a suspended sentence. Where prison sentences have been applied, they have often been seen by the public as excessively lenient. Cho Doo-soon's attack on the 8-year-old known only as Na-young led to a 12-year prison sentence, a punishment widely denounced as too light for a crime that left a school girl with permanent, life-changing injuries.
"The statutory punishment on sex offenders and sex offenders against children is severe enough but the problem is the sentencing," said Kim. "Although South Korean legislators have made very strict and severe punishment, the judges have given soft sentences. I think the sentencing guidelines for sex offences against child should be amended for more harsh and strict sanctions on such offenders."
A conservative, male-dominated judiciary is likely part of the reason for soft sentencing, added Park.
While methods of punishment and deterrent have generated much comment, considerably less attention has focused on just what causes sexual attraction to children in adults, not all of whom necessarily act on their urges and commit crimes. There has been scant research on the subject in Korea at all, according to Park Han-son, a psychiatrist at Saint Andrew's Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province.
"Unfortunately, there are few academic reports or research about pedophilia in Korea. Pedophilia is a very important paraphilia because this mental disorder causes some substantial mental and physical damage to victims, like sadomasochism. But, only a small minority of psychiatrists is interested in pedophilia now," Park said.
Park estimated that pedophiles receiving treatment are a tiny minority.
"We should handle patients legally after the occurrence of the criminal event. And we need to approach this problem from a scientific viewpoint for a lot of potential patients. However, the basic responses to this problem in Korea are criticism against the government or meaningless lamentation of a moral gangrene ... There is no systematic measure for the psychiatric management of sociopathic or pedophilic persons. I can say that (a) very limited number of (pedophiles) is receiving professional treatment in Korea."
Stigmatization likely deters those who want help from coming forward, added Park.
"The stigmatization of psychiatric disorder has been documented for decades after the introduction of modern psychiatric practice in Korea. Even some psychiatrists are reluctant to see paraphilic patients. Destigmatization of psychiatric patients and improving awareness of mental disorders is needed for more potential patients to get medical help for managing their deviant sexual interest."
While pedophilia has long been termed a mental disorder, an increasing body of opinion in recent years has defined it as an unalterable sexual orientation, calling into question the effectiveness of treatment.
In the US, about 50 per cent of convicted pedophiles reoffend, though programs to treat the predilection have shown mixed success.
Explanations for the root causes also differ, ranging from childhood abuse to less white matter in the brain.
"Pedophilia is related to low self-esteem, poor social skills and impaired self-concept, psychologically," said Park. "The patients tend to be very shy and passive-aggressive when it comes to personality. Some doctors say this disorder is related to inappropriate attachment with the primary care-giver in childhood. Personally, I reckon poor cognitive inhibition of deviated sexual fantasy is the main cause of actual child sexual molestation."
The debate has moved on from surgical castration. It is, however, worth considering the progression of the "debate" about how to deal with sexual crime. First it was long sentences and publishing details online; then it was chemical castration; but as that was deemed ineffective, physical castration was mooted; and now the debate has moved on to whether the best option might be the death penalty.
Recently, one of my Korean friends said that the only negative thing about Korea he could think of was that Koreans tend to latch onto something suddenly. He gave the example of the 2002 World Cup, when every Korean fell in love with football and as soon as it was finished, the stadiums lay empty for years.
This has been a problem in Korea for years, but like many Korean problems it is just not acknowledged. I can still remember in 2009 when a 50-something man raped an 8-year-old school girl, claimed he was drunk, and got 12 years in prison. There are numerous other examples in the last three years. There have been a number of movies dealing with this ― most effectively, "The Crucible."
In the last three years (or more) there should have been an ongoing public discourse about this problem, but there hasn't been. Welcome to the land of sporadic and sudden reactions: based on public consensus, we're probably going to end up living in one of the few countries that executes people. And, despite what Park Geun-hye spuriously claims about the death penalty being a deterrent, with this country's history of executing innocent people, that's not really a place Korea should want to visit again.
It's not the time for mob frenzy, protesting and browbeating. It's an (overdue) time for calm and slow, pluralistic debate. If only that could happen.
― Brian Arundel, Seoul, via Facebook
The parents have to teach them to stay away from dangerous situations with all strangers and people they know. Korean children are being taught to fear all foreigners yet Korean parents tell them not to fear Korean men ― even when they are drunk. That's setting them up for disaster. Plus, it's about time the Korean police cleared drunken Korean men from areas around schoolyards, parks and playgrounds. There's no excuse for allowing drunken men to lay around public areas, and this is especially true in areas where children go to school and play.
― Matthew Tildesley, Seoul, via Facebook
The most important thing is to stop claiming that strangers are the main danger to children. This is categorically wrong. Recent high-profile cases aside, only around 10 per cent of sexual abuse against children is committed by someone unknown to the child. Around 30 per cent is committed by family members and the other 60 per cent by someone known and trusted by the family. These figures are from Europe, but there is no reason to suggest they are markedly different in Korea. The tight and extended families here would suggest a similar, if not higher, rate of intra-family abuse.
So, once we can stop blaming dodgy drunks and shady-looking geezers waiting in the park, what can we do? Well, as intrusive as it might seem, the police need to have powers to investigate families with at-risk children. Having worked in schools in Korea, it is shocking how little power the local authorities seem to have to investigate families for cases of abuse. Until local authorities and social services are able to remove children from the primary site of abuse ― often the home ― or remove the abuser, then little will be done.
In the meantime, the media and the well-meaning public look for seedy drunks in raincoats lurking around swings at night, when the real danger for an abused child is when they return home and are "safely" tucked up in bed. That is the sad truth.
― Ennten Dal, Jeju City, via Facebook
To my knowledge Korea up until recent years had a culture were older men sometimes groped younger teens and it was more or less socially accepted, people just turned a blind eye to it. I believe it comes from the Confucian legacy where you obey your elders and not losing face were a vital part of your everyday life. Also I am certain that it is only recently a lot of rape cases get out in the open, because society is changing and people's perceptions are starting to change. Even in the most developed democracies like Sweden, very few rape cases become known to the public because the victim feels ashamed, I can only imagine that in Korea it is at least the same or much worse.
In order to prevent rape or pedophilia Korea should invest heavily in upgrading its counseling services and make it more accessible for the public. It is my firm belief that no one wakes up one day and thinks, "Today I want to rape an innocent child." It is something that is developed over time and if you could get some help then it can be prevented. Another thing that can help prevent pedophilia is to stop all the online forums that encourage such despicable acts.
What others have already said is the problem with roaming children in the night, and while it does produce opportunity, it is hard for a young child to know right from wrong even if they have been told never to follow strangers. I blame the parents who send their children far to attend hagwon (academies) which usually end late at night. It should be parents' or the hagwon's responsibility to take the children safely home (some do but not everyone).
― Jonte Hee Soo Am, Suwon, via Facebook