South Korea's subway murder case prompts review of anti-stalking law

A protest as a part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea, on March 8, 2018.
PHOTO: Reuters file

Barely a year after South Korea's anti-stalking law came into effect, the government is reviewing the legislation following a spate of high-profile murders of women at the hands of their stalkers.

President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday (Sept 23) ordered the justice ministry to amend the law, after a subway worker was recently killed by her stalker in yet another case to surface.

The victim's lawyer, Min Go-eun, criticised the limitations of current laws to curb such crimes.

"I felt frustrated at the failure by law enforcement and the court to act more proactively to prevent the murder," she said on Tuesday.

Until recent years, South Korea had treated stalking as a minor offence punishable by a fine of up to 100,000 won (S$100.82) before it yielded to pressure to get tougher with gender-based violence.

The anti-stalking law enacted last October stipulates up to five years in prison for offenders.

But following the legislation, authorities have continued to deal with some 5,400 stalking crimes as at the end of June.

At least three women who had sought help from stalkers were reportedly killed by their aggressors in the first six months of this year.

A woman in her 40s in June was stabbed to death by a stalker in his 60s who was living in the same block of flats in Ansan City, south of Seoul.

Critics say the law contains a flaw: the offender can get off scot-free if a compromise is reached with the victim, allowing him to influence or force a victim to pardon him.

Following Yoon's instruction, the justice ministry said it would seek to close the loophole.

Subway toilet murder

Women attending a protest held as part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea, on March 8, 2018.
PHOTO: Reuters

In the subway case, the attacker Jeon Ju-hwan, 31, last week fatally stabbed his 28-year-old victim after following her into a bathroom at the Sindang station in Seoul where she worked.

Ju-hwan was overpowered by other employees who responded to the alarm bell triggered by the victim inside the toilet. She was taken to a nearby hospital where she died from her wounds.

Ju-hwan began stalking the victim in 2019, almost immediately after they were hired at the same time by Seoul Metro.

The victim filed multiple police complaints against Ju-hwan last October and again in January this year, accusing him of stalking, illegal filming and death threats.

The murder occurred just a day before the court was scheduled to hand down a possibly heavy jail term for Ju-hwan, who was arrested in October but released on bail.

Prosecution authorities had called for nine years in prison for Ju-hwan before he killed the victim.

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The case prompted further outrage after Kim Hyun-sook, minister for gender equality and family, denied it was a gender-based crime.

When asked whether the case should be viewed as a misogynistic hate crime, she replied: "I don't think so. I do not agree that this case should be handled in the frame of men versus women."

Her comments drew backlash from women's rights groups, which highlighted that nearly 80 per cent of stalking victims in South Korea were women, making it undeniably a gender-based crime.

Hyun-sook was also accused of victim-blaming by suggesting the murder might not have occurred had the victim been more aware of protection measures offered by her ministry.

"That's not the point," said Representative Kim Han-gyu of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

"The government's role should be focused on separating the stalker from the victim, rather than letting the victim know how she can receive protection.

"It sounds highly problematic that the gender ministry expects victims to protect themselves."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.