Calls for stalking law overhaul in South Korea as woman’s murder shocks nation

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

The murder of a South Korean woman who had been stalked by her alleged killer for years has sparked outrage and demands for changes in the law to better protect women.

The woman’s murder in a bathroom at the subway station where she worked earlier this month has shocked South Korea, coming a day before her alleged attacker, named by police as 31-year-old Jeon Joo-hwan, had been due to be sentenced for stalking her.

The 28-year-old victim, who has not been named, was stabbed multiple times after finishing her evening shift at Sindang station in central Seoul.

Jeon was reportedly overpowered by other station employees who rushed to the scene after the woman triggered an alarm in the bathroom. She later died in hospital from her injuries.

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South Korean media reports alleged Jeon had begun harassing the woman after they began working for Seoul Metro in 2019. He reportedly called her hundreds of times begging her for a date and threatened to harm her if she refused.

After the victim reported Jeon last October he was dismissed from his job and arrested, but released on bail. Like many other stalking suspects, he was not subjected to a restraining order.

“We acknowledge the gravity and cruelty of the crime,” the Yonhap news agency quoted a panel of police and experts as saying in a statement.

Jeon was arrested on charges of murder, and the ruling on his stalking indictment has been postponed until 29 September.

The woman’s death has triggered anger and accusations that South Korean authorities are failing to take violence against women seriously.

The country’s gender equality and family minister, Kim Hyun-sook, was heavily criticised after she said she did not believe the woman’s murder was a gender-based hate crime.

During a visit to Sindang station, Kim told reporters that she did not think misogyny had been a factor. “I do not agree that this case should be framed as men versus women,” she said. Women’s rights campaigners pointed out that nearly 80% of stalking victims in South Korea are women.

Speaking in the national assembly this week, Kim sparked more fury by suggesting that the crime could have been prevented had the victim sought advice from a ministry helpline and taken other preventive measures.

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An anti-stalking law carrying a maximum three-year prison sentence that was passed last October has been condemned as flawed, since it permits police to take action only with the consent of the victim. That loophole, according to critics, gives stalkers the opportunity to pressure their victims into dropping their complaint.

Since the law came into force, police have made 7,152 arrests for stalking, but only 5% of the suspects have been detained.

The justice ministry is reportedly considering removing the consent requirement, but critics have pointed out that a similar measure has been stalled in the national assembly for more than a year, due in part to resistance from the justice ministry, which argued the new anti-stalking law would be sufficient.

Before the new law was introduced, stalking was treated as a misdemeanour in South Korea punishable only by a modest fine, according to the Korea Herald.

But now pressure is mounting on the president, Yoon Suk-yeol, to strengthen the law amid evidence that stalking often precedes more serious crimes.

A recent report by the Korean National Police University found that almost four in 10 murders of close partners were preceded by stalking incidents.

The murder case has highlighted South Korea’s continuing battle against gender-based crime. The country has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement in Asia, partly in response to an epidemic of molka – invasive footage filmed with spy cams that almost always targets women – and anger that authorities were not doing enough to punish offenders.