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Raped and alone in a foreign land

Expat victims of sexual assault speak up, seek help

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Published : 2013-04-23 19:58
Updated : 2013-04-24 16:33

The names of some of the sources in this story have been changed to protect their privacy. ― Ed. 


“I was walking home from a lesson ... when someone came up from behind me, putting me into a chokehold with one arm and immediately shoving his other hand up my skirt ...”

“I was seen walking outside with a guy ... and then the next thing I remember is being in some kind of elevator or car park and trying to get away, but him pulling me hard. Then being punched in the face and holding my arms up to try and protect myself ...”

For any person, becoming a victim of sexual violence is the worst fear come true. But for foreigners living in Korea, it can have an added level of fear. Language barriers, a lack of information on available services, and the less then stellar reputation of the police all complicate an already terrifying ordeal.
Two women talk at the Sun-Flower Women and Children’s Center located at Seoul National University Hospital near Hyehwa Station in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Victims of sexual assault have many of the same traumas, according to a counselor who has worked with a sexual assault victims’ advocacy program for the last five years and as a counselor since 1996.

“First and foremost is guilt, especially if there is alcohol involved. ‘How could I let this happen? How did I put myself in this position?’” he said. “But, their trust is shattered. How they deal with every single human being for the rest of their life is forever changed.”

Current situation

Under Korean law, rape carries a punishment of seven years to lifetime imprisonment.

In 2011, 22,034 rapes were reported, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. Of those, 18,591 cases resulted in arrests with a total of 18,880 offenders being convicted. However, only 12 percent of those found guilty, or 2,289, were sentenced to jail time.

It is impossible to know the true number of victims in Korea, let alone the number of foreign victims, as many who are attacked ― Korean or foreign ― do not report the crime. Based on a 2010 survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, it is believed that the sexual crime reporting rate in Korea is about 10 percent.

The National Police Agency does not distinguish between Korean and foreign victims in its sex crime statistics.

Reasons vary from victim to victim, but some foreign victims say they didn’t report their case because they didn’t believe the police would do anything to help them, while others refrained out of shame or guilt.

“I felt like I couldn’t report him because nobody would understand why I didn’t report him straight away, why I continued to hang out with him, why I continued to allow things to happen between us, and I couldn’t explain it myself,” said Lynn, a Seoul resident.

In 2009, she was raped by an acquaintance. Because the two shared mutual friends and she didn’t want anyone to find out, she continued to be around him and the situation turned into a vicious cycle of drinking, manipulation and self-blame.

She was able to break away. However, she said she was disgusted to find out later that the statute of limitations for sexual assault in Korea is only six months.

Nell, an American living in Seoul, said she was put on hold several times while calling the police to report her attacker. A man came up from behind while she was walking home one night from work last year, put her in a chokehold and groped her. After getting away, she watched as the man escaped while the 112 operator, who spoke English, asked if she was sure the attack wasn’t a joke.

“When I insisted that this was not the case, the operator sighed in irritation and said, ‘Well, what do you want us to do?’ I said I wanted them to arrest the man, and the operator said the police couldn’t get there in time,” she said.

Lack of services available in languages other than Korean or information on available services is another common complaint.

“I had no idea about any kind of victim support in Busan. I was never offered anything,” said Leigh, a British national. She was beaten last summer, after being pulled away by an unknown assailant from a friend’s birthday party.

She dropped the charges, saying there was a lack of efficiency in the police management of her case.

“The second time she (my manager) called the police on my behalf, she was told that there were ‘many cases’ like mine and that the police station was ‘very busy,’ and that it was going to take a while to look at CCTV and I shouldn’t be too hopeful,” she said.

Where to go for help

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family runs 30 relief centers for victims of sexual, domestic and school violence. There are three types ― One-stop Support Centers for victims of sexual and school violence (15), the Sun-flower Children Centers (8), and Sun-flower Women and Children Centers (7).

The one-stop centers and women’s centers offer help to victims of sexual, domestic and school violence as well as victims of sex trafficking. They have free comprehensive counseling, investigative work, medical care and legal advice and operate 24/7.

The centers do not employ translators, but the workers present can at times communicate with foreign victims, depending on the center. The ministry said if communication is difficult or impossible, some centers will call translators.

Victims should call 1899-3075 immediately after the attack and they will be connected to the center nearest their location. According to the ministry, 22,573 victims visited the centers last year, an increase from 11,134 in 2008.

Locations include four in Seoul in Songpa-gu, Dongjak-gu, Mapo-gu and Jongno-gu; one in Busan in Seo-gu; two in Daegu in Seo-gu and Jung-gu; two in Gwangju in Dong-gu; and one in Jeju.

Also, the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center offers help to victims in English and Korean. They provide counseling and support for victims, including medical and legal advice. The center can be reached at (02) 338-2890~2, www.sisters.or.kr or ksvrc@sisters.or.kr.

Programs created exclusively for foreign victims have appeared in recent years as well. A new program in Seoul called Seoul Survivor Services aims to be that critical link between foreign victims, the police and medical centers.

Co-founder Ada Long, who is a U.S.-trained advocate, said she started it to fill in the gap in victim services for English-speakers. Upon arriving in Korea, she looked for programs to volunteer for but was turned down because she couldn’t speak Korean.

“And then it didn’t take me until a year later, I was like: Wait a minute. If I can’t do it in Korean, what about the people who speak English? Where can they go?” she said.

For now, Seoul Survivor Services just handles referrals, but it hopes in the future to start up a hotline, conduct community outreach programs and be able to help victims in every aspect. They can be reached by emailing seoulsurvivorservices@gmail.com or visiting their Facebook page, “Seoul Survivor Services.”

In other areas of the country, Jeolla Safety Alliance started up to provide an avenue to keep foreigners in South Jeolla Province safe by passing on safety tips and keeping residents aware of crime in the region, as well as helping victims. The group can be found on Facebook under “Jeolla Safety Alliance.”

The Migrant Women’s Emergency Support Services also offer counseling and aid in 11 languages. They offer telephone and in-person counseling, as well as emergency shelter services, legal counseling, connection to emergency services such as legal aid, investigation and police services, hospitals and medical treatment, and interpretation services.

The group can be contacted by calling 1577-1366 or visiting their website at www.wm1366.or.kr.

By Emma Kalka (ekalka@heraldcorp.com)