A recent murder case that has been in the headlines for about a week is fueling a public debate on South Korea’s handling of domestic abuse and the consequences its victims often face.
An “angry” man stabbed his ex-wife to death four years after their divorce, and his three daughters have since filed an open petition demanding his execution.
“We want to solely live and remain as the victim’s daughters, not the criminal’s,” the three daughters said in a recent newspaper interview, saying the suspect severely abused their mother before and after their divorce. “We want the toughest punishment available imposed on him.”
The man who allegedly killed his ex-wife appears for questioning at the Seoul Southern District Court on Thursday. (Yonhap)
The daughters’ online petition, filed Wednesday -- the same day their mother was murdered -- demanding that their father be executed, had been signed by more than 144,800 Koreans as of Sunday morning.
In the petition, one of the daughters said her 49-year-old father had physically and verbally abused her and her siblings throughout her life, in addition to abusing her late mother. She also said the suspect had sent her mother death threats, even after their divorce was finalized four years ago.
Many women’s rights groups say her death could have been prevented if the state did a better job of protecting victims of domestic abuse. According to a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), nearly 45 percent of 16,868 “home protection” cases in 2015 did not result in any criminal punishment.
Home protection cases are domestic violence cases that involve state intervention, with measures ranging from education programs for the abuser to restraining orders and suspects being held at designated facilities.
According to police data, less than 1 percent of over 16,800 domestic violence reports, of which more than 75 percent of the victims were women, led to suspects being taken into custody in 2017.
In addition, nearly 35 percent of the aggressors avoided criminal charges, and were instead assigned to attend educational programs.
‘Family preservation’ first
To tackle the issue, Korean women’s activists had been calling for the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Domestic Violence to be revised, saying it often forces victims to “forgive” or “reconcile” with the aggressors and not cut ties with them.
Article 1 of the act states that its primary purpose is to “maintain and restore the family.” This has often been interpreted by lawyers, judges and others to mean that family separation should be the last resort when dealing with domestic violence. Currently, restraining-order violations are only subject to administrative fines.
“The Committee is concerned that a reconciliation procedure is mandatory even in cases of divorce based on domestic violence, and that the ideology of preservation of the intact family leads to awarding visitation rights and child custody to abusive fathers,” the UN CEDAW wrote in its March report.
According to women’s rights groups, female victims of domestic violence, particularly those of sexual violence, have often been subjected to criticism and shaming from their families and judges.
Speaking to a number of reporters in 2016, a woman in her 20s said she had received death threats from her paternal grandmother after she filed a legal complaint against her father, who had raped her on multiple occasions throughout her life.
Her grandfather, for his part, openly blamed her for “ruining (his) son’s life,” saying, “What kind of a daughter sues her own father and lets him serve a prison term?”
“It was traumatic,” the victim told The Korea Herald in 2016. “I thought out of all people, my grandmother would understand.”
‘We need a completely new legal system’
Women’s rights groups accuse the Korean government of inaction, even after the UN CEDAW made a recommendation earlier this year to revise the domestic violence law to “give priority to the prosecution of crimes over family reconciliation.”
In March, the UN committee had specifically advised the Korean government to prohibit the use of reconciliation in cases of domestic abuse; to stop suspending charges in “home protection” cases; to ensure that perpetrators are criminally punished; and to adopt a policy of mandatory arrest for crimes of domestic abuse when restraining orders are breached.
None of these recommendations have been adopted.
In the petition, the daughter of the murder suspect Kim wrote that her mother could not pursue a normal life even after the divorce, due to her father’s threats.
In January, the suspect showed up without warning at her mother’s place, carrying a weapon, and threatened to kill her. In April, her father tried to set fire to her mother’s home. Police were called on both occasions, but did not arrest Kim.
The victim’s 24-year-old daughter said her mother always covered her face with a hat whenever she went out of the house, in case she ran into her ex-husband; she had changed her phone number 10 times since the divorce.
“My mother moved five times after the divorce, including to a shelter, but my father always managed to find her and threaten her again,” the daughter wrote in her petition.
On Wednesday, the suspect was found at a hospital after stabbing his ex-wife to death earlier in the morning. Police said he had been drunk and unconscious after committing the crime, and someone had sent him to the hospital for medical attention.
Korean criminals in the past have often received mitigated sentences due to “impaired judgment” resulting from mental illness or drunkenness.
His daughters claim that he had been seeing a psychiatrist for that reason, and would often tell them that even if he were to be jailed for any criminal activity, he would only have to serve six months as he has a history of receiving medical treatment for a mental condition.
“My father’s judgment has never been ‘impaired.’ He is a criminal who needs to be separated from society for good,” the daughter said in the petition demanding her father be executed.
“We basically need a completely new system in order to actually protect victims of domestic abuse in this country,” said Korea Women’s Hot Line, an organization devoted to helping women victims of domestic violence.
“The current system is simply letting the victims die.”
For most of her 24 years, she said, the victim’s daughter had to either suffer or witness her father’s abuse. Her mother died after enduring 25 years of violence, as well as constant death threats, from the father of her children.
“Whenever my father hit me and my sister (when we were little), I remember my mother couldn’t even try to stop him. Terrified, she would close her ears with her hands and be curled up in the corner of the room (while we were being abused),” the daughter said in an interview with a local daily.
“After she divorced my father, I didn’t get to spend much time with my mother. The day before she died, I told her that I loved her for the first time in my life, and gave her a money gift. I wish I had told her that more often. My mother died just eight hours after that.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)