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Legislative inaction leaves victims of stalking at risk of serious violence

Flowers and messages are left by mourners outside the women’s bathroom in Sindang station, where a 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death by her stalker on Sept. 14. (Yonhap)
Flowers and messages are left by mourners outside the women’s bathroom in Sindang station, where a 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death by her stalker on Sept. 14. (Yonhap)

The stalking-murder of a young woman that shocked South Korea last week has prompted a flurry of promises for change from lawmakers and the government, but measures being floated now have been stalled at the National Assembly for more than a year.

At around 9 p.m. Wednesday, a 28-year-old woman was stabbed multiple times to death by her stalker of three years, 31-year-old Jeon Ju-hwan, inside the bathroom of Sindang subway station in central Seoul.

After it was revealed that the suspect was the victim's co-worker and longtime stalker, the Ministry of Justice said on Friday that it would work to have stalking punished without victims having to provide their consent.

Under the current law, stalking is an offense that cannot be punished in the absence of the victim’s express consent. Stalkers have taken advantage of this, crime experts say, threatening victims into withdrawing their complaints.

The change sought by the Justice Ministry is a reintroduction of past bills that never saw the light of day.

In June last year, Rep. Nam In-soon of the Democratic Party of Korea proposed getting rid of the clause that bars stalking offenses from being indicted before victims give their explicit consent. Similar bills have been submitted by Reps. Tae Yong-ho, Jun Joo-hyae and Lee Young of People Power Party earlier this year.

On the proposals, the Office of Court Administration said victims were prone to additional abuse from stalkers pressuring them to cancel their complaints.

The Justice Ministry at the time, however, said that as stalking behavior constitutes an offense when the victim feels fear, excluding the victim’s consent to charges being laid could cause problems. The majority opinion of the legislation and judiciary committee of the National Assembly was also that the change could wait, as the new anti-stalking law came into effect only in October last year.

Before October, stalking was considered a misdemeanor, typically punished by a fine of only around 80,000 won ($57).

Police are seeing a lot more complaints now that there is a law that treats stalking more seriously. From October last year until April, 540 complaints of stalking were filed in Daejeon, translating to 2.81 per day, according to the city's police agency. Before the law existed, it worked out to 0.75 complaint per day.

The new law allows police to take four degrees of action on stalking ranging from a written warning, restraining order, no contact order to temporary detention.

But recent cases have revealed stalkers violating restraining orders without being detected by the police. Even then the orders are seldom issued. According to the data from the Justice Ministry, more than half of requests for restraining orders filed from January to July were dismissed.

The victim in the Sindang Station murder was under remote protection by the police, which did not stop Jeon from coming to her home or workplace.

Stalking is a key precursor in escalation of violence, even murder, according to recent data.

According to a report on Sunday by the Korean National Police University, nearly 4 in 10 murders of intimate partners were preceded by stalking behaviors. The report studied 336 murders of intimate partners between 2017 and 2019 and found that stalking was identified in 37.5 percent of them.

The Korean Bar Association said in a statement Monday that the protection afforded to victims under the anti-stalking law fell short and called on lawmakers to take concrete steps for change. The association pointed out that since the law’s passage in October, stalking, alongside domestic violence, was on the rise and the tactics used by stalkers were getting more violent.

By Kim Arin (