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Korean women speak out on gender violence

Survivors tell their stories upon Gangnam murder case that highlighted daily dangers faced by women

About five years ago, Kim Ji-eun was caught smoking at home by her older brother. She was 20 at the time, enrolled in her first-year at a university, and it was just a day before her final exam.

“He started beating me for smoking at home,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “He first slapped me in the face, and I fell on the floor. Then he started violently stomping on my stomach and my head.”

The incident severely damaged Kim’s uterus, as her mother did not offer to pay for her required hospital treatment. Just a year earlier, her brother had sexually harassed her at home. “My mother didn’t want my father to know about my injuries,” the 25-year-old said. She has since been told by a doctor that she may not be able to get pregnant as she missed timely treatment.


Kim is one of some hundreds of Korean women who paid tribute to the 23-year-old woman who was stabbed to death by a man with a history of schizophrenia who said he killed because he hated women.

While the police officially announced on Sunday that the case cannot be classified as a hate crime against women, as the suspect suffers from a serious level of mental illness, the case regardless has triggered widespread public debate on gender-based violence and women’s safety here.

Many women started sharing their experience of violence online, calling for systemic change against the country’s relatively high tolerance of crimes against women and gender disparity.

According to lawmaker Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, 87.2 percent of all reported victims of violent crimes in the country in 2014 were women, a significant increase from 72.2 percent back in 1995. The nation was also ranked 117 out of 142 countries in gender equality by the World Economic Forum back in 2014, alongside Qatar, Nigeria and Zambia. 

“I think patriarchal values still prevails in South Korea,” said Lee Soo-yeon, a researcher from the Korean Women’s Development Institute. “Rather than seeing them as independent beings, women are still viewed as men’s dependents who should be protected by men. This, in turn, makes it difficult when women (to) try to voice their opinions or ask to be treated as an equal. I think there is a huge clash between the old patriarchal ideology and the changed status of women.”

In Kim’s experience, gender disparity was arguably the most rampant at home. Her brother constantly invaded her privacy in the name of a “protector.” He made her report to him on her dating life, what time she returns home every day, and constantly monitored her in case she smoked. When she tried to move out and live by herself as life with her family became unbearable, her father told her “young women who live on their own look too easy (for men),” and pressured her to stay home instead.

Kim eventually managed to move out, but her bother kept texting her – asking her to move back in – until she changed her number recently.

“I survived only because I was lucky. Anything could have happened,” she said. “I had to live with an attempted rapist for two years in the same house. It’s all because I was a woman.”

Park Hyeon-jin, a 37-year-old woman, said she experienced sexual harassment when she was 17. That day, she was lying down on a bench at a park in the daytime, with her eyes closed. That’s when a man, whom she’d never met before, approached her and touched her breasts.

She ran away from the park and managed to escape in a cab.

Since that day, Park said she can never lie down on a bench at any park. “I couldn’t tell my mother what happened that day,” she said. “I knew she would’ve said something like, ‘Why on earth did you lie down on a bench like that?’”

Being exposed to sexual harassment has been a common thing since she was a girl.

When she was in high school, she was asked by a male stranger on the street whether she had ever slept with a man before. Another time, she was almost dragged off to an unknown place by a group of elderly men, who insisted she should drink with them. They only stopped and left when other male pedestrians intervened.

“Whenever I tell my male friends about such instances, they would say something like, ‘Why is it that you encounter such situations so frequently?’ looking puzzled,” she said. “When I first heard such responses, I was sort of confused, too, thinking maybe there was something wrong with me.” She said she now realized she was not the only one. “It was because I’m a woman.”

Lee Jeong-eun also said she has experienced gender-based violence throughout her life. Her teachers would touch her and her female classmates’ body parts without their consent. At work, male superiors would make jokes about breasts. Cab drivers have cursed at her or made sexually explicit jokes. Ever since she learned of a site that posted secretly taken pictures of women in public spaces, she stopped going to public bathrooms.

“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.”

According to a 2013 study by the Gender Ministry, 78.5 percent of the surveyed women said they don’t feel safe taking a cab late at night, as they are worried about possible verbal and physical attacks.

Kim said her parents were equally as abusive as her brother after her brother sexually harassed her when she was 19. Instead of filing a complaint to the police, her parents blamed Kim instead. She said what her parents said during those times also traumatized her.

Among the things they said include: “Why didn’t you lock the door?” “Why didn’t you wake us up?” “Do you want your brother to be punished?” “Don’t tell others what happened” and “You are such a disgrace to our family.”

Her mother, especially, would often tell Kim that violence by men are in fact “worse in other families” and that “all men are the same.”

“I think for someone to tell me to understand them is to tell me to die,” she said.

Her school teachers were no better. They told her “all men are naturally violent” so she should just try to avoid spending time at home as much as possible.

Ahn Sang-soo, another researcher at KWDI, said such victim blaming exists worldwide, but tends to be more prevalent in societies where stereotypes against women prevail.

“Victim blaming is based on this desire to believe that horrible things can’t happen to me or those close to me,” he said. “So you make yourself feel better by thinking such violence only happens to a certain group of people, who may have done something to deserve what happened to them. This happens everywhere across the globe, which often silences the victims. In Korea, women are more pressured to behave in certain ways than other countries, and therefore it’s easier to blame those who don’t belong to the ‘normal’ category.”

Jang Ji-hee, a date abuse survivor, also experienced victim blaming after ending the abusive relationship. The 23-year-old dated her ex-boyfriend, who is 8 years her senior, for about three months back in 2014. She said he was a well-respected figure in the professional field she still hopes to break into. She had no idea about his violent side before their romantic relationship began.

“It started with what I thought were jokes,” she told The Korea Herald. “He said things like, ‘You’re fat,’ ‘You’re ugly,’ ‘Your breasts are too small’ in a joking manner. And then he eventually started screaming and cursing at me. He kept saying I needed plastic surgery.”

The abuse culminated in rape, which she could not resist because of fear, Jang said. She wanted to break up with him, but a number of things made her hesitant.

“He is an influential figure in this professional field I was interested in, so I was afraid that I may face career disadvantages if I broke up with him,” she said, adding that she also feared he would seriously physically harm her if she ended the relationship.

When her story went viral, the comments that were left further mortified her. The posts accused Jang of being a gold digger, and kept questioning why she did not say no. “The experience gave me depression and I still have to take drugs,” she said.

By Claire Lee (

*All names of the sources have been changed upon request. –Ed.