Walking home alone after a night out with friends, Anna Desmarais found herself with some unwelcome company.
“This guy just grabbed me,” the 34-year-old Korean-American said, recalling the late-night assault that was not the first time she’d been threatened by men in Seoul’s Itaewon area.
Luckily, the martial arts gym owner was well-equipped to deal with her attacker.
“I just started yelling and I went to lunge at him and he ran away,” she said. “The power dynamic had turned around. I looked like I was going to attack him.”
Anna said the assault was a story too many women here can relate to, but one that they also have the power to do more about.
“Some people think that they are very safe walking about at night here because it is Korea, but we can’t think like that,” said the Korean-American who also owns a bar in Itaewon. “We should take the same precautions that you would when walking around in any other big city.”
Katy Carter is now taking self-defense classes at Anna’s gym after some scares from men following her home at night and a taxi driver who groped her instead of taking her home.
“I had a couple of incidents and now I don’t walk home alone,” said the 30-year-old university English teacher from the U.K. She even calls her boyfriend so he knows when to expect her before making the 10-minute walk home from her Krav Maga workshop.
“Korea can be very deceptive (for foreigners) because you don’t have people on the streets who can speak your language,” she said. “Because people live in a bubble here they don’t know the dangers unless it happens to them or a friend.”
And the statistics back up anecdotes of men’s threatening behavior; assault is a growing problem for women in Korea.
The total number of sexual assaults including rape reported by women here rose from 10,189 in 2000 to 16,156 in 2009 (the last date that statistics were available) according to the Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics organization.
But since many women don’t report such crimes, the real figure is likely to be much higher.
Only 2-5 percent of female victims are thought to report cases of sexual assault or rape, according to Kyung Jung-ha, a sexual violence relief center activist for Korean Womenlink.
“The statistics of sexual harassment and rape may be much less the actual number because average Korean women taboo telling others about bad experiences,” she added.
“Even if they do tell other people, reporting to the police or a women’s organization is very minimal.”
But once Anna shared her own experiences, friends flocked with tales of being groped on the subway, approached in the street or even followed home by strange men.
One friend, Kelly Frances, said three recent incidents where she was threatened by men grabbing or following her in her own neighborhood prompted her to seek safety advice.
The 34-year-old who works in media in Seoul spoke of one attack where a stranger grabbed her and refused to let go on a busy Itaewon street: “I hated the way I dealt with it. I felt that the situation could have been avoided.”
While the fault lay clearly with her attackers, Anna said there was plenty women could do to protect themselves. Self defense
“Be aware of your surroundings,” advised Anna. “If you feel that someone’s watching you then they probably are. You should trust your instincts and get away as fast as you can. Don’t wait and see what’s going to happen, just go. Why take a chance? It won’t hurt to get out of there.”
Anna recently offered a free women’s safety workshop at her Body & Seoul Martial Arts and Fitness Center based on techniques taught at the gym’s weekly Krav Maga classes.
Gideon Roth, an instructor in the Israeli self defense system, saw safety devices as ineffective as “in the time it takes you to get out your pepper spray, the guy is going to be on you.” But being ready to defend yourself against an attacker can make all the difference, even if a woman’s safety strategy is simply following his instruction to: “use your nails and go for the eyes.”
The martial arts expert who believes everyone should be able to walk home alone at any time of night trouble-free said: “When your heart starts pounding and your stomach drops, that is when you start attacking. It doesn’t matter about size. If you are trained, you can take someone down easily. You develop this confidence that can be felt around you.”
That is a feeling his student Katy is trying to cultivate.
“At the moment I don’t go out or put myself in these situations because I don’t feel like I can defend myself. It feels like I would rather be safe than go out and have a good time,” she said.
“A woman should be able to go out and not feel threatened. Hopefully with these classes I will be able to protect myself as a strong female. It is a confidence thing.”
For Busan-based self-defense expert Danny Kessler, being verbally assertive could prevent a situation from escalating into a violent assault. Power of words
“Most risks to your personal safety can be avoided before the anything physical happens,” he said. “There are some very simple things you can do to avoid needing physical safety techniques. It’s all about being aware of your environment, reading people’s body language and avoiding potential problems.”
The American advises women to draw embarrassing attention to a potential aggressor when in a public area by yelling loudly and shaming him into backing off.
The author is now holding self defense seminars at Korean Kartel gym in Busan, with the next session on Saturday, to help women stay safe on the streets here after hearing of “multiple incidents where women have felt their personal safety is being threatened.”
The English professor has also revised his “Angels With Attitude” safety guidebook which he wrote in the U.S. to tell how to deal with scenarios in Korea that differ from Western culture.
In “The South Korean Woman’s Guide to Personal Safety” ― available as an e-book on Amazon from Dec. 1 ― the chapter on guns has been removed, and advice on strong verbal defenses has been modified to allow for cultural differences between East and West.
When it comes to walking alone at night Kessler thinks: “Korea is safer. If you were downtown Busan or Seoul by yourself walking late you would be at less risk than if you were in downtown New York or L.A. early in the morning.”
But there are different scenarios to contend with here.
“One of the issues is scenarios in Seoul on the subway where it has been really crowded there have been instances where women have been touched in inappropriate ways and how to handle that,” he said.
“In America we would make a big scene and embarrass that person in front of everyone else on the subway, but some people here say not to do something like that. You never want to make anyone lose face. I want to teach people to work around different cultural issues in Korea.”
But he said that no matter where you are, up to 90 percent of keeping safe could come down to “reading body language, understanding what people are thinking and an ability to verbally defend yourself”
He also aims to translate the English language e-book into Korean after several friends expressed a need for such a text here.
Although Korean Womenlink has also held self-defense seminars in the past. Kyung emphasized society’s responsibility to prevent such attacks in the first place, rather than placing all responsibility on the women at risk.Society’s problem
“Individuals cannot do much on preventing a crime,” she said. “When a crime happens, it happens. The government should strengthen safety nets in society to deal with such problems, such as strengthening the law or setting up more CCTV and lighting up dark alleys.”
She said that Korean women were often relatively unused to physical activities, and hesitant to protect themselves in that way.
“They’re either embarrassed or they fear letting others know about their danger,” she said.
“This is one of the reasons why there are less cases being reported than the actual crimes happening.”
Roth agreed that making Korea safer for women should be a collective effort.
“I think that it is important to recognize that there is a problem and that it is not just one person’s responsibility but the whole of the community’s responsibility,” he said. “It is easy to complain, but I would like people to be more active.”
By Kirsty Taylor and Monica Suk