It looked like just another busy day in Gangnam, Seoul’s well-known affluent district, except on Wednesday evening there were piles of white flowers and post-it notes covering the walls near exit 10 of Gangnam Station. There were also people -- many of them young women -- looking visibly shocked and grief-stricken, with their eyes glued to the pastel-colored post-its filled with heartbreaking messages.
“No one should die just because she is a woman,” read one of the messages. “I know I could’ve been you, you could’ve been me,” said another.
The flowers and messages were left as tributes for the 23-year-old woman who had been stabbed to death the night before in the public bathroom of a four-story building near Gangnam Station.
Visitors pay tribute to a 23-year-old woman in an alleged hate crime, near exit 10 of Gangnam Station on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
The 34-year-old murder suspect, with whom the victim allegedly had no prior contact, told the police he committed the crime because he had been “belittled by women” many times in the past.
Security footage showed the man wandering around the building and entering the bathroom a few minutes before the victim. Police said Thursday that the man is believed to be schizophrenic, having been hospitalized multiple times before.
The idea to leave tributes to the late victim at the nearby subway station was initiated by two online communities for women, who created a Twitter account on Wednesday morning. The account handle is @0517am1, in reference to the day and time the victim lost her life.
“A young woman who was just having drinks with her friends was stabbed to death only because she went to the public bathroom (in the same building) in the middle of the gathering,” one of the tweets said, asking the public to support the cause. “If we don’t do anything about this case, then the next victim could be any one of us.”
Cho Su-min, a 23-year-old woman, said she came to the site after learning about the case via Twitter. “I feel scared and powerless,” she told The Korea Herald. “But I feel this is the least I can do. It’s especially devastating because I’ve been thinking that among all areas in Seoul, Gangnam is one of the safer areas.”
With shock over the case growing, the police on Thursday said that it should not be perceived as a misogynist crime.
“As the suspect is suffering from a serious level of schizophrenia, it is difficult to view the motive as hatred toward women,” the Seocho Police Station said. They said a profiler was interviewing the man.
But shadows of discrimination and misogyny have lingered over the case. Some of those who left tributes at the subway station also attached to their messages printed-out responses that others had had toward news reports on the murder.
“Ugly Korean women can relax,” said one of them. “No one’s going to touch you so stop worrying and use the public bathrooms as much as you need.”
Some said the motive of the murder is no longer the main point.
Kim Ha-ram and Kang Min-kyung, both 30, said they had come to see the tributes after being enraged by several media reports on the case. For instance, one of the major dailies here published a report with the headline: “Theology student who dreamed of becoming pastor commits impulsive murder.” It also reported that the suspect was often “mistreated” by a number of women while working at a church.
“I thought (the headline) was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Kim. “Why do we even need to know that about the suspect? Why does it even matter that he studied theology? What about the late victim and the dreams and goals she may have had? The report almost sounded as if the suspect’s future was ruined because of the victim.”
Kang added that the news reports were problematic because they seemed to indirectly blame women for the suspect’s crime. “Instead of saying he did it because he was ‘mistreated’ by women, the reports should have said that he had issues with his confidence. Being mistreated by the opposite gender does not justify murder.”
Most of those who left flowers for the victim purchased them from Songrim Flowers, a flower shop minutes away from exit 10 of Gangnam Station.
“People have been coming in since 8 a.m. to pay tribute. I think we’ve received more than 100 people so far,” said Kim Song-rim, a 70-year-old florist who has run the shop for 30 years.
“I’ve been working in this district for a long time, and Gangnam has always been filled with young people. It’s heartbreaking to learn that something so terrible has happened in this area.”
Statistics show that violence against women, especially in the context of dating or courtship, is prevalent in South Korea. According to a 2014 study by Lee Hwa-young from Korea Women’s Hot Line, up to 50 percent of Korean women have been physically abused by their romantic partners at least once in their lives. The study also showed that almost 90 percent of the surveyed women said they had either been physically or emotionally abused by their partners or boyfriends.
Last year, a man in his 20s was criminally charged after it was revealed that he murdered his girlfriend shortly after she tried to break up with him, then secretly buried her body. Voyeuristic sexual crimes against women, such as taking pictures of body parts in public spaces, also increased dramatically here from 2005-14.
A survey released in March by the Korean Women’s Development Institute had shown that more than half of South Korean men do not object to expressions such as “Kimchinyeo” and “Doenjangnyeo,” which describe “materialistic Korean women.” Such terms, which are considered derogatory to women, are widely used on social media and other platforms.
A 28-year-old woman, who only wanted to be identified by her surname Lee, learned about the murder case on Wednesday morning -- shortly after being sexually harassed by a man at Gangnam Station. The man ran away when Lee tried to confront him.
“I was really angry so I called my friend to talk about it,” she told The Korea Herald. “I told her that I wish I had at least had the chance to curse at him. That’s when my friend told me about the murder case and said, ‘I think it’s good that you didn’t. Who knows what could’ve happened to you if you did (curse at him)?’”
Lee said that her friend’s advice reflects the reality of Korean society in that many female victims of violence are blamed for what happened to them. Common examples of shaming victims include blaming them for “being too drunk” or “hanging out late at night,” or even saying “they should have known better.” Even the Gender Ministry’s campaign ad against sexual harassment last year encouraged women not to wear miniskirts when riding the subway.
“I’ve never felt that being a woman in Korea is so hard until today,” she said.
Lee left a tribute to the recent victim on two post-it notes. She decided to write two sentences in German after observing that others had written in different languages.
They said: “Weil sie eine Frau ist (Because she is a woman)” and “Weil wir Frauen sind (Because we are women).”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)