Dating abuse rampant yet hushed in Korea

Dating abuse rampant yet hushed in Korea
PHOTO: TNP

When Song Ah-young started dating her ex-boyfriend in 2008, she thought he was one of the kindest people she'd ever met. She had just broken up with her ex, who left her for another woman.

"I was just 23 at the time and I was heartbroken," Song said. "The breakup really affected my self-esteem. And then there was this guy, who would say the kindest things and shower me with gifts. The only thing he didn't buy me was an engagement ring."

But things took an unexpected turn about two months into the relationship. That day, Song was about 20 minutes late for their movie date. Her ex was furious that he missed the first portion of the film, blaming Song for "never being on time." She kept apologising, but it would only make him angrier.

The couple ended up leaving the theatre, deciding not to watch the movie at all. Then it happened.

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"When I told him he was being unreasonably upset, he hit me," she said.

For the next two months -- until her brother accidentally discovered her bruises -- Song endured the abusive relationship, thinking he would one day change to the way he used to be. Soon after the first incident, her ex started to beat Song whenever there was a disagreement between them, including what they should eat for dinner. Sometimes the abuse took place in public.

"No one would ever help me," she said.

"He would hit me in front of people in public, and then drag me to a closed space to beat me more."

Dating abuse in numbers in Korea

Song is one of some 70 per cent of young Koreans who have experienced dating abuse at least once in their lives. According to research last year from Duo, a matchmaking agency, 72.3 per cent of the 491 surveyed single male and female Koreans in their 20s and 30s said they had been abused by a romantic partner.

Further research by Lee Hwa-young at Korea Women's Hotline -- a nongovernmental organisation helping female victims of violence -- showed that up to 50 per cent of Korean women said they had been physically abused by a romantic partner. Almost 90 per cent of the participants said they had been either physically or emotionally abused within the context of dating or courtship.

According to the NGO, at least 114 Korean women were killed by either their husbands or boyfriends last year. From 2011 to 2013, some 20,500 individuals were arrested for dating violence.

Lee's study also showed that 40 per cent of the women who experienced dating abuse for the first time chose to stay in the relationship, despite the possibility of continuing violence. The largest number of them -- 60 per cent -- said it was because the abuse was not "serious enough to end the relationship," while 26.4 per cent said they chose to stay because they felt they "also did something wrong" to deserve the abuse.

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For Song, it had to do with her self-esteem, which had already been affected by the bitter break-up before dating the abuser. "I had just been cheated on by my ex at the time," she said.

"It just made me feel as if there was something wrong with me to deserve all of these mistreatments. When he started beating me up, I thought if I tried harder and behaved better, perhaps he would change."

Allegations and controversies

It was only recently that debate over the seriousness of dating violence began to take place. Last month, two women made abuse allegations, one against Han Yun-hyung, a former journalist who is well known in liberal-progressive Korean politics, and another against Park Won-ik, a published author and the former head of the Korea University Graduate School Students' Union.

The women, who claimed to be the men's ex-girlfriends, made their online allegations public -- saying they had been abused by Han and Park while dating them in the past.

Their allegations were especially shocking to many as Han had been vocal about women's rights issues, and even participated as a commentator at the Seoul International Women's Film Festival.

Park, on the other hand, had published a book that critically analysed Ilbe, an online community known for its politically far-right and hateful content against social minorities and women.

According to Moon Gye-rin, who claims to have dated Han from 2008-2012, she was constantly physically abused by Han from 2009 until their relationship ended. He would beat Moon for "disagreeing with his arguments" and "insulting his looks" among other reasons, and whenever his favourite baseball team lost a game, she said. He would also often tell Moon that her actions were what motivated him to beat her, she claimed.

In her public blog post, Moon said she had been aware that Han was a child abuse survivor and that he had been depressed mostly due to his financial difficulties as a freelance writer. Moon did not leave him partly because she thought his behaviour could improve once he received the right medical treatment. She and Han were in friendly terms even after their break-up, until she was raped by Han's close friend in 2013 -- and Han chose not to do anything to defend her position.

"I identify myself as a radical feminist," Moon wrote in her post. "I am surrounded by fellow feminists and aware of countermeasures against violence against women. I wanted to tell people that a person like me can also be a victim of dating abuse."

Meanwhile, Min Kyung, who claims to have dated author Park for a few months in 2012, wrote in her public blog post that Park would often curse, scream and throw objects in her presence whenever he became angry, and threatened to show up to her place when Min finally broke up with him. She also claimed that he sexually harassed her after their relationship ended.

Soon after the allegations were made, Han admitted that he beat Moon on a number of occasions while they were dating. In his defence, Han claimed that he hit Moon in one particular incident because they were in his kitchen together and he was scared "that she may take out a kitchen knife to attack him."

Park, on the other hand, withdrew from his position with the student union at Korea University, but denied the allegations.

Why victims choose to stay silent

After their allegations were made, the two women's motives were questioned by some netizens. Some accused them of being revenge-fueled ex-lovers anxious to ruin their former boyfriends' reputations and established careers. Moon was criticised for "not keeping her personal history with Han private."

"If Moon Gye-rin had problems with Han Yun-hyung's violence, she should've reported him to the police (while dating him) or should have never spoken to him after breaking up with him," wrote a netizen whose nickname is Lee Eun-gyeol on his or her Twitter account.

"But she was on friendly terms with him even after the abusive relationship was over (until his friend raped her), and made such public allegations years later. This can only be seen as an act of revenge (not a way to seek justice)."

Lee Mi-jeong, a researcher at the Korean Women's Development Institute, said it was unfair to criticise the alleged victims for staying in the abusive relationship or staying in touch with the abuser.

"When you think about it, it's really not easy to cut someone out of your life so instantly," she said.

"This does not just apply to romantic relationships. For example, would it be easy to cut your siblings or best friends out of your life right away, even if they did something unforgivable? Victims of dating abuse are faced with a situation where the person they love is the one who abuses them at the same time."

"Victim shaming" -- the act of placing the blame for the crime or other abuse at the hands of the victim -- happens across the globe.

And it is common for victims of violence to wait for many years to come forward with their accusations.

When more than 25 women last year started to publicly accuse actor Bill Cosby of raping or assaulting them over the past 40 years, the alleged victims were called liars and even gold diggers by the actor's defenders. It was revealed this week that the 77-year-old told lawyers back in 2005 that he drugged a young woman so he could have sex with her, according to court documents. The particular case was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2006. Over 40 women have now accused Cosby of sexual crimes. Cosby has never been criminally charged.

In Canada, Jian Ghomeshi, a former radio host for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was accused by nine women of sexual abuse last year. Of the nine, only two of them agreed to identify themselves. The alleged victims' anonymous allegations -- spanning from 2002 to 2008 -- against the popular and powerful broadcaster was also questioned by some for their credibility.

Ghomeshi currently faces trial on several charges of sexual assault and choking. But when the allegations were first made public, similar questions were asked: Why did they wait for so long? Why didn't they call the cops immediately?

Lee from the Korea Women's Hotline said multiple factors play into victims' decisions to stay silent. The biggest factor is the lack of support from society and even close family members. One of the victims she surveyed for her research had a hard time because her own mother didn't believe her, and even told her she "should change, as well, to make their relationship better."

Another victim was stunned by what the police officer told her after reporting her ex-boyfriend. She had been stalked and physically abused by him after she broke up with the abuser.

"The police officer told her that she 'shouldn't have been so harsh with him' when she ended things with him," Lee said. "As if she was partly responsible for what happened."

Min Kyung, who claims to have been abused by the author Park, said she did not step forward until recently simply because she was afraid. Author Park was an influential figure in Min's own circle of society and has 3,000 followers on Twitter.

He would often criticise her openly using his Twitter account, she said. Her decision to speak out was inspired by Moon Gye-rin's courage.

"I was physically weaker, was less influential and less powerful," she wrote in her blog post. "Knowing how he behaves once he becomes angry, (I could not step forward in the past) because I was afraid of potential revenge (from Park)."

Surviving the abuse

When Kim Ji-eun broke up with her ex-boyfriend five years ago, he showed up at her place without consent and banged on the door for an hour before leaving. As he kept apologising and asked her for another chance, she agreed to meet him in person.

The day Kim met him, an argument developed and he started punching her in the face in the street. She eventually got out of the situation as a pedestrian called the police for her. By the time, she was already bleeding.

Kim, who filed a complaint against him that day, said it took her a long time to overcome her fear after the incident. For a while, she was afraid she might run into him in the street or that he may plot revenge against her. She'd wake up in the middle of the night gripped with fear.

Song, on the other hand, changed her phone numbers and got a dramatic haircut so her ex wouldn't recognise her even if they ran into each other.

"I'd have nightmares about him for about a year," she said. "In those dreams, someone I don't recognise would forcefully take me to his place and I would just cry because I knew once I'd get there I'd be beaten."

Lee from the Korea Women's Hotline said many victims experience posttraumatic disorder for years after the abuse. "A lot of them develop a sense of anger as time passes," she said.

"The sense of anger usually stems from feeling that their abuser is leading a happy, comfortable life, while they are still suffering from the violence they experienced. This is one of the reasons some of them decide to step forward even if the abuse took place some decades ago."

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Lee said introducing heavier penalties for stalking, which often leads to more serious forms of abuse, can be one of the ways to improve the situation. In Korea, the heaviest penalty a stalking offender can face is a fine of 100,000 won ($90).

Since 2012, two bills have been proposed to introduce heavier punishment for stalking, but are still pending at the National Assembly for approval.

"Statistics show that 70 per cent of all stalking offenders are the victims' romantic partners," said Rep. Nam In-soon from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy in a statement.

"We need more discussion on how to define stalking and how to protect and support the victims."

Meanwhile, Lee from the Korean Women's Development Institute said it is necessary to educate the public.

"More people should be aware that violence is not acceptable in any kind of relationship and that there is a difference between showing affection and obsession," she said.

"For example, one should not mistake his or her romantic partner's obsessive behaviour - such as showing up at their place every night or forcing them to use GPS locaters every day - for expression of affection or care."

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