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Murders among romantic partners on rise in South Korea

In May, the discovery of a young woman’s body packed into a suitcase buried under cement in the hills in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, left South Korea in shock and horror.

The 26-year-old, surnamed Kim, was murdered by her 24-year-old boyfriend, who allegedly killed her while drunk after she tried to break up with him. The boyfriend, only identified by his surname Lee, impersonated Kim on social media for two weeks after killing her and disposing of her body.

According to Rep. Jeong Yong-ki of the ruling Saenuri Party, the number of murder cases among dating partners has been on the rise in Korea since 2012, from 99 to 108 last year. In the last three years, the number of victims like Kim totaled 313.
A research also showed that 40 percent of the Korean women who experienced dating abuse for the first time chose to stay in the relationship, despite the possibility of continuing violence. (123RF)
A research also showed that 40 percent of the Korean women who experienced dating abuse for the first time chose to stay in the relationship, despite the possibility of continuing violence. (123RF)

The murder cases accounted for 11.9 percent of all crimes committed by the victims’ romantic partners against them, including stalking, physical violence and rape. The rate is particularly high considering the total number of murder cases in Korea only accounted for 1.69 percent of all violent crimes -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- in the same period.

“This means two people are being killed by their romantic partners every week,” Rep. Jeong said.

According to Korea Women’s Hotline, a nongovernmental organization helping female victims of violence, at least 114 Korean women were killed by either their husbands or boyfriends last year, while at least 95 women survived after being seriously attacked by their spouses or romantic partners.

Almost 90 percent of women who participated in the NGO’s research last year said they had been either physically or emotionally abused while dating or during courtship. From 2011 to 2013, some 20,500 individuals were arrested for dating violence.

According to the police, Kim had also reportedly endured serious dating violence for about a year until she tried to end things with Lee.

According to local news reports, Lee would often break into Kim’s house without consent for “not picking up his calls” and physically abuse her. Lee later confessed to the police that he killed Kim “in a fit of rage” when he learned that Kim wanted to break up with him.

Kim and Lee had met as teacher and student at a private English institution in Busan, where Kim had been teaching upon returning to Korea after graduating from the State University of New York at Albany.

Kim’s story overlaps with experiences of many women who participated in researcher Lee Hwa-young’s study for Korea Women’s Hotline.

Many suffered abuse, assault and rape when they tried to end the relationship.

One of the victims had been dragged to a motel room against her will and raped there by her enraged boyfriend, right after she told him that she wanted to break up with him.

Another victim had been guilt-tripped and emotionally abused after she tried to end things with her boyfriend. “He told me that I’m being a terrible person (by trying to break up with him) to his mother as well, because he already told her that we are getting married and our breakup is going to hurt and disappoint her badly,” the victim told researcher Lee in her study.

Another victim was stunned by what a police officer told her after she reported her ex. She also had been stalked and physically abused by her ex after breaking up with him. The officer reportedly told her: “You shouldn’t have been so harsh when you broke up with him.”

According to Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, an American support organization for victims of violence, there are some characteristics that are common to abusers of dating violence. One of them has to do with gender role expectations.

Many individuals who abuse their romantic partners tend to have certain ideas of how men and women should act, largely following the stereotypical ideas of male dominance and female passivity.

The abusers also may have difficulty expressing feelings, abuse alcohol and be “protective of their romantic partners to the point of controlling that person,” according to the organization.

Local experts say that popular culture and sex education are some of the biggest -- and often negative -- influences in gender role expectations among Koreans, which sometimes cause problematic consequences in relationships.

“For example, there are so many Korean TV dramas that show its male protagonist forcing a kiss onto his love interest, while the woman just docilely accepts it,” researcher Lee from Korea Women’s Hotline told The Korea Herald.

“Many men, especially teenagers, may think this is normal and acceptable behavior. It does not only apply to men. While men may think it’s acceptable to kiss or touch someone against the person’s will -- or it’s not ‘manly enough’ or ‘cool’ to even ask the woman for consent -- young women may think they should just remain silent even if their dating partner does something they don’t want or like, or keep their wants to themselves and wait until the man makes the move.”

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry’s recently issued -- and heavily criticized -- guidelines for sex education famously stated that “date rape can occur in situations where a man spends a lot of money on dates, as it is natural for him to want commensurate compensation from the woman.”

Lee’s research also showed that 40 percent 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 portion of them, 60 percent, said it was because the abuse was not “serious enough” to end the relationship.

Rep. Jeong said the government needs to be more involved in combating dating and domestic violence. Introducing heavier penalties for stalking, which often leads to more serious forms of abuse, can be one of the ways to improve the situation, according to civic experts. In Korea, the heaviest penalty a stalker can face is a fine of 100,000 won ($83).

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

By Claire Lee (