On Tuesday, May 17th, a 23-year-old woman was violently murdered in a public bathroom in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The man, referred to as Kim in local press, had never met the victim and waited near the bathroom with the intention of killing a woman. According to Kim, “I did it because women have always ignored me.”
Despite the fact that the murderer cited his hatred of women for his crime, saying that women had always been “dismissive” of him, the police claimed the incident was not a hate crime, saying, “There is a need to distinguish between hate crimes and crimes driven by mental illness. The latest case falls in the latter category. Hate crime arises from prejudice on a certain group, while mental illness-driven crimes are usually committed due to symptoms such as delusional thoughts and auditory hallucination.”
Kim had a history of schizophrenia, which he had been hospitalized for four times since 2008. Though he had been prescribed medication, he had neglected to properly take his medication since January and had been living on the streets since March, according to police.
Though police have been cautious of calling the incident a hate crime, a public debate has been triggered about misogyny in Korea — and not all Korean citizens are convinced the incident was not a direct attack on women.
Korean psychiatrist Suh Cheon-seok claimed that attributing a mental disorder as causation for homicide ignores the social climate which can lead to violence against women: “Even if his misogynist remarks were triggered by his delusional thoughts, we have to make a note that his delusional thoughts were affected by the social climate that is hostile against women. We can’t conclude that this case is not a misogynistic crime because the suspect is mentally ill. Rather, we have to take it seriously that misogynist behavior is becoming one of the symptoms of mental illness. If the suspect did not live in a society where misogyny prevails, he would have had other kinds of delusions, rather than the one of being belittled by women.”
A 2014 study on crime and mental illness conducted by the American Psychological Association found that only 7.5% of crimes were directly related to symptoms of mental illness. Suh also stated that, worldwide, the number of crimes committed by the mentally ill was lower than crimes committed by those who were not being treated for mental illness.
During 2015, according to data from the National Police Agency, 87% of all victims of violent crimes, including rape and murder, reported from January until August were committed against women. In addition, a report on global homicide conducted by the UNODC found that Korea had one of the highest homicide rates for women in the world, where 52.5% of homicide victims in 2011 were women. For comparison, there are only 6 other countries in the world where the female homicide rate exceeds 50%, two of which — Hong Kong and Japan — are also Asian countries.
Mourners and protesters have staged protests and vigils in Seoul, mostly congregating at Gangnam station exit 10, nearby the location of the murder. On the weekend of May 21, the subway exit was covered in post-it notes paying respect to the victim. Chrysanthemums were laid on the street and candles were lit. Many of the messages attributed the crime to misogyny, in spite of the police’s public statement. One such message read, "You died because you are a woman. The rest of us survived only because we were lucky."
Male protestors at the memorial site held placards reading, “Not all men are potential murderers," igniting debate and increasing tensions during the event. The right-wing men’s rights organization Ilbe sent a garland of flowers to the memorial site with a sarcastic message about men who died during the Cheonan warship sinking in 2010.
However, the public outcry since last month’s murder has focused largely on women sharing personal stories of their experiences with misogyny.
Lee Jeong-eun* is one of many women who have come forward to publicly share her experiences of being groped by teachers and sexually harassed by male co-workers.
“It seems like men can endure being ‘belittled’ by their fellow men, but cannot bear being ‘belittled’ by women,” she said. “If they considered us as an equal, this wouldn’t have been an issue.”
The conversation has taken to the streets, where women and men alike have congregated with megaphones to speak out against a culture of sexism in South Korea. Out of the tragedy, perhaps some good can come from this.
Top photo: Facebook/gangnam10th
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Myra Pearson is a freelance writer and poet from Blacksburg, Virginia. She resides in Seoul, Korea, where she teaches at Duksung Woman's University. he is the editor of Period Magazine, a non-profit zine for women in the literary and visual arts. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and her first book of poems is forthcoming. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.