When Lee Tae-ho, a social worker at the National Child Protection Agency, last year visited a 7-year-old at his home upon request from his school teacher, nothing seemed too out of place at first.
“My mother drinks a lot of water when she’s eating,” the child told him about his single mother.
It didn’t take long for Lee to realize that the “water” was in fact the colorless Korean alcoholic beverage soju.
Unemployed and depressed since her bitter divorce, the mother would drink about 20 bottles of soju a week, and would fail to provide basic care for her young children. The boy and his sister, 6, would skip dinner most days. A number of times, the suicidal mother asked them if it “would be better if they all killed themselves together.”
As a social worker working for a state-run agency, Lee said he has personally witnessed many domestic violence abusers with drinking problems.
Lee’s observation was demonstrated in a recent study, which found a significant connection between alcohol abuse and domestic and sexual violence in South Korea.
A recent study found a significant connection between alcohol abuse and domestic and sexual violence in South Korea. (123RF)
The scholarly article from Dongguk University, which surveyed 4,851 arrested individuals for violent crimes last year, showed that 73.1 percent of the domestic violence abusers and 67.9 percent of sex offenders committed their offenses while under the influence of alcohol.
While some say violent abusers with untreated alcoholism should face heavier punishment, others point out that those with low socioeconomic status are much more vulnerable to addiction and committing crimes, and therefore a stronger safety net is needed to tackle the issue in the long run.
In 2009, a shocking case of child rape drove Korea into a fury when it was revealed that the assailant, a 57-year-old named Cho Doo-soon, was given 12 years in prison after damaging 80 percent of the young victim’s colon through his offense. That year, the court said Cho had “diminished capacity for his decisions” because he was drunk at the time of the offense, which weighed into the sentencing. The victim, who was 8 at the time of the incident in 2008, was also abducted and beaten by Cho before being raped. Cho had been unemployed and addicted to alcohol.
Lee Won-jeong, a police officer who authored the study for Dongguk University, claimed that criminals should never be given reduced punishments for “being drunk” at the time of the offense. Instead, ex-convicts with a record of alcohol addiction who chose not to get the required medical treatment should face heavier penalties should they become second offenders, he wrote.
“In order to do this, the police should establish a separate team that monitors all offenders with drinking problems, and that offers treatment options so they don’t repeat their mistakes again,” he wrote.
Social worker Lee said most domestic violence cases against children he witnessed were triggered by marital problems and the financial problems of the parents.
The abusive, alcoholic mother, for example, became depressed after her husband suddenly went missing. After the divorce, the unemployed mother relied on state subsidies given to destitute individuals who make less than the government-designated minimum cost of living. She soon started drinking alone at night.
“She kept telling me that she no longer wants to live,” Lee said, “and that she can’t even kill herself because of her children. In many cases that I have seen, they had three signs before the abuse took place -- divorce, depression and alcoholism.”
Studies have shown that Korean domestic abuse offenders with drinking problems tend to have low socioeconomic status. A 2012 research paper by the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, which surveyed 142 domestic violence offenders with alcoholism, showed that 30 percent of them were unemployed while 43 percent were temporary workers on daily contracts. Almost 50 percent of them attended up to elementary or middle school. Meanwhile, 99.3 percent of them were men.
Park Seong-su, a professor at Semyung University’s police administration program, said addiction can be more prone to affect people who are faced with overwhelming situations or unresolved emotions.
“You need something to focus on in order to forget about whatever problems you have in your real life,” he said. “This can be common in people who are faced with financial hardships and a lack of support. Feelings of helplessness are what often cause depression, and depression often leads to addictions.”
The study also found that 54.5 percent of the offenders had a father who also had drinking problems. Almost 55 percent of them said it’s their anger and distrust for their wives that led to their abusive behavior, while 23.9 percent said their low self-confidence triggered domestic abuse. Also, 21.8 percent cited stress as the main cause of their violence.
Korea is notorious for its culture of binge drinking. In a report released last year by Euromonitor, a London-based market intelligence firm, Koreans were said to drink 13.7 shots of liquor per week on average, making them the heaviest drinkers in the world, beating out the Russians and Thais.
Meanwhile, confirmed cases of child abuse in Korea jumped nearly 50 percent last year from 2013, with 80 percent of the abusers being the parents.
According to the latest data available from the Gender Equality Ministry, 46.1 percent of Korean parents abused their children at least once in 2013, and 45.5 percent of married Koreans were abused by their spouses in the same year.
Social worker Lee said many children who have been abused by their parents often don’t want to be separated from their mothers and fathers in spite of the violence. “The child of the alcoholic mother in fact refused to speak further when I asked him more about his mother,” Lee said.
“What is best for the children in abusive homes, I think, is to treat their parents and reunite them once they are healthy. What would be even better is to prevent addiction and other mental illnesses in socially and financially vulnerable homes.”
By Claire Lee (email@example.com