Story by: Eileen Cahill, Photos by: Vanessa Sae-hee Burke
Greater awareness, open discussion needed to combat culture of blame
Story by Eileen Cahill
Illustrations by Vanessa Sae-hee Burke
Additional reporting by Jongmin Lee and Hyejin Park
*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.
The first time her husband hit her, Trinh Thi An* had gotten up in the middle of the night to comfort their crying daughter. She forgave him because they had a child together and because his behavior seemed out of character. But the violence continued.
Once, he grabbed her by the neck and punched her in the face in front of the child, who was about 3. Another time, he physically forced her out of the house and wouldn’t let her back in. When she went to the police for help, the officers convinced her husband to sign a letter of apology in which he promised not to do it again. But one day, Trinh came home from work to find her husband naked on the bed with the child, and he was encouraging her to touch his genitals.
Trinh is one of countless women in Korea who experience violence, some on a daily basis. The perpetrator could be a flasher on the street or the creepy coworker down the hall. Or he could be your friend, your date or your spouse.
According to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, 22,034 rapes were reported in 2011. Of those, 18,591 cases resulted in arrests with 18,880 offenders being convicted. However, only 12 percent of those found guilty were sentenced to jail.
A lack of services, combined with a negative attitude toward victims from officials and society, means many of these cases go unreported and unprosecuted. Only 1.1 percent of sex crimes in Korea were reported in 2013, a drop from 4.1 percent in 2010, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family,
Trinh met her husband in 2004 when she was working for a Korean grocery store in Vietnam. He was more than 20 years older than she, and they weren’t in love, but they liked each other. Her parents thought he would be a good husband because he seemed kind and helpful. He made two short visits to Vietnam before the couple got married in 2007. The following year, their daughter was born.
The Vietnamese-born Korean citizen, who did not want to use her real name, told Groove Korea that the incident involving her daughter sent her into a state of panic and despair. She went to the police on four separate occasions over the next several months and each time, the officers urged her to reconcile with her husband. Once, an officer even grabbed her hand and forced her fingerprints onto an official statement saying that she forgave him.
Finally, after the fourth incident, she got help. This time the police brought her to an emergency shelter outside of her neighborhood in Seoul, where she lived for a month and a half starting in December 2012. She moved to Osan from Seoul the following March and her divorce became final that November.
Trinh is currently struggling to raise her daughter alone. She makes 1.2 million won per month at her cleaning job, and rent and kindergarten fees eat up half her salary. She has applied for a low-interest loan from the government, and hopes it will give her more financial freedom and allow her to get a better apartment. In a file folder she carries receipts, invoices and legal documents — including a copy of the apology letter she received from her husband when he locked her out of the house.
Despite her ordeal, Trinh is happy to be living in peace and wants to stay here and raise her daughter as a Korean. She said her daughter is very smart, speaks both Korean and Vietnamese and likes to draw. Like the proud mother she is, Trinh showed pictures of the little girl’s artwork on her phone — bright pink marker drawings of a female figure.
Nowhere to turn
Victims of violence like Trinh report that officials in Korea often use fear and shame to manipulate women into putting up with beatings and humiliation. Feminist sites and blogs such as the Korean Gender Café and Ilda describe callous reactions from police and family members after a sexual assault.
That was the experience of expat teacher Lori Michael, who arrived in Korea on Dec. 16 with a heavy backpack and an enormous suitcase on wheels that didn’t turn properly. Michael, 33, spent roughly three years teaching in Korea and was returning for another stint. When she contacted Groove Korea on Dec. 20, she’d been back for only four days and had just filed a complaint with police against her Korean employer, the director of an English-language hagwon in Jeonju.
Soon after she started work, her employer took her to an elementary school for what turned out to be a job interview. When they were together in the school parking lot, things took an ugly turn.
“He smacked my ass, rubbed my shoulders and punched me in the shoulders,” Michael told Groove by email correspondence.
After he hit her, the director said, “In Korea, there is a problem with sexual harassment.”
Michael asked her employer to release her from her contract so she could obtain the documents she needed to change jobs, but he wouldn’t cooperate unless she agreed to withdraw her complaint. She refused.
“On the day I went to the police, not only did my director lock me out of the apartment and change the code, he also started to demand the 500,000 won of questionable money back,” she said. “I say questionable because right after he hit me, he had his wife send me that money and I asked why. He never had a comment for that.”
Ten days after going to the police, she had run out of money and urgently needed assistance. So she got on the bus to Seoul, not sure of her next move.
This was not Michael’s first emergency as a foreign woman in Korea. In 2011, while she was working at a hagwon in Uijeongbu, she went with some friends to a club in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood on Chuseok weekend.
She left the club with a young man, whose name she never knew, and they went to a hotel together. There, Michael accepted a shot of liquor, drank it and passed out. When she woke up, she was alone. In the bathroom, she looked down, saw blood and realized she must have been drugged and raped.
“All I remember is waking up by myself in the room all alone,” she said in an email. “I remember my abdominal area feeling really strange and awkward. Almost like a cramp.”
She took a shower, got dressed and left as fast as she could.
Police officers helped her retrieve her belongings from the club, which had closed for the holiday, but they didn’t seem to understand her when she tried to tell them about the rape.
“They just shrugged their shoulders like they didn’t care,” she wrote.
She tried to report the incident again at a different police station after she moved to Paju, west of Uijeongbu.
“The cops just laughed at me and took me to about three different departments before taking me to the scene of the crime,” she said. “But it was already really late, and I was just so tired and emotionally exhausted and frustrated due to the language barrier. I just wanted to go back to my apartment.”
Michael tried a third time, this time with the help of the U.S. Embassy, and a police department in Gangnam, Seoul, finally processed her complaint — though not without a judgmental comment from an officer about how long she had waited.
Around this time she had trouble holding a job, with one school cheating her out of her wages. So on New Year’s Eve, she applied for a repatriation loan from the U.S. Embassy and was back on a plane the same day. She is now back in New Jersey, where she wrote to Groove Korea to recount the last details of her case.
A week or so after the incident, she attended a fireworks festival in Seoul with some acquaintances from Uijeongbu. They returned to Hongdae to see a band they liked, and Michael felt safe enough with the group. But at the club, she had what she described as “the strangest/most awkward coincidence of my life.”
“My entire body just froze like a deer in headlights when I saw the guy who raped me standing near the bar,” she said.
Michael didn’t know what to do: Attack the man physically? Tell the people she was with? Call a club security guard, or the police? “None of the above occurred,” she wrote, “because I didn’t know who to talk to about it.”
Since then, both of Michael’s cases have been closed due to lack of evidence.
Better laws, but low awareness
Korea saw a fivefold increase in sexual violence reports between 1992 and 2012, according to Ewha Womans University professor Lee Mi-kyoung. This figure includes rape, sexual assault and other offenses such as flashing. The reporting rate increased as well, from 2.2 percent in 1992 to 7.6 percent.
“But the rate is still very low,” said Lee, who has taught women’s studies since 1990 and whose main interest is the legal protection of victims’ rights.
The reason the rate is so low, she said, is because there is a general lack of awareness about sexual violence in Korea, and improvements in the law have yet to make a real impact on society.
“Korea enacted the law (on sexual violence) in a relatively short period of time,” she said. Now, it’s a matter of ensuring that the law is enforced correctly, she said.
Recent reports have suggested that sexual violence has actually declined in recent
years, Lee said, citing a recent news article examining the sexual assault reporting rate based on surveys in 2010 and 2013. She said she believes the results are reliable, but said it is premature to conclude that the number of sex crimes has decreased just because the number of reports has dropped.
“Actually, this is how the government reads the statistics: They assert their policy was highly successful by concluding that the number of sex crimes decreased,” she said, adding that it is important to look beyond the statistics and reflect on the people behind the numbers.
Lee said police sensitivity and sexual assault prevention programs needed significant improvement.
Police agencies are establishing special victims units across the country, which she called a helpful step. “But that doesn’t mean everything,” she said. “We should think about whether people from the unit (understand the issues surrounding) sexual violence.” It is important to invest in training to that end, she added.
Korea’s law on sexual violence mandates educational programs on sexual harassment prevention at the elementary, secondary and university levels, as well as in the workplace. But she said these programs generally consist of lectures given to large groups of students, and she hopes for more open discussion on the subject.
“We do not have the kinds of opportunities where people share their personal experiences as victims of sexual violence,” she said.
Lee is also a director, cofounder and board member of Korea’s first rape crisis center, the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, which opened in 1991. The KSVRC is a nongovernmental organization that seeks to address sexual violence by advocating for victims’ rights and changing the way society and institutions look at the issue. That approach distinguishes the KSVRC from other centers, she said.
The organization receives a portion of its funding from the Korean government, about 60 million won a year, but Lee said that covers only a fraction of its operating costs while restricting its activities in the areas of advocacy and government monitoring.
For example, the government requires the center to enter victims’ personal information, including their resident registration number, into a database. The government says this is done to prevent fraud, including false claims and duplication of support. The KSVRC believes the policy could endanger victims or lead to re-victimization, but the organization is limited in what it can do to challenge the practice.
“We usually collide with the government over administrative problems,” she said.
Nonetheless, Lee said she has seen real progress over the years in the availability of assistance for victims.
“The new government announced four major social hazards — sexual violence, domestic violence, school violence and junk food — and they are making efforts to eradicate them,” she said. “Thanks to these efforts, an institutional infrastructure (to address sexual violence) has been established.”
However, she also said there is a need for greater awareness about what constitutes sexual violence and a change in societal attitudes toward assault victims.
“We should be aware that sexual violence is something that can either happen to me or be done by me,” she said. “We can also look at it as having a sensitivity toward human rights. It is not limited to sexual violence. It is a process of figuring out ways to be considerate and respectful in human relationships. Without this process, it will be difficult to eradicate sexual violence.”
Moving forward, fighting abuse together
Expat groups are filling the gaps in the system for their communities by creating safe spaces for dialogue and sharing information.
Before she left home, a sexual assault had left Vanessa Sae-hee Burke emotionally shattered and disillusioned with her friends, her college, the police and the legal system. To distance herself from the experience, she worked multiple shifts as a counselor at a rape crisis center, in a program for teenagers, and in another program specifically for teenage boys who had been sexually violent. Although the work was helping her heal, she eventually realized she needed a new start.
She came to Korea three and a half years ago to live as free as she could from that painful time in her life. (Although Burke was a victim of sexual violence, she prefers not to disclose details of her own case because she doesn’t want to invite comparisons.) She also wanted to help empower other women who had been through similar experiences.
Last summer, she cofounded Disruptive Voices with two friends, Rydia Kim and Chloe Lee, to encourage open discussion about sexual violence, gender discrimination and other injustices affecting their lives. She said the name Disruptive Voices was a response to the way victims of assault in Korea are treated.
“You’re blamed for it, you’re guilted, you’re treated horribly for it, you’re ostracized for speaking forth. We’re tired of being told to be quiet and that ‘Ugh. You’re going to talk about this again?’” she said. “You’re going to talk about whatever the hell you want. This is something that has changed our lives and caused a big shift. So ‘disruptive,’ because we’re not gonna blend in. We’re disrupting the peace, I guess, or the ignorance.”
Burke, a teacher, artist and designer who grew up in the Boston area, has since left the group, but remains passionate about the need to support victims of sexual violence.
After being haunted by harassment for most of her life, Chelle B. Mille used her trauma to start a branch of a global organization dedicated to helping people going through similar experiences by giving them space to speak out.
“Harassment for me started at 11 years old in Chicago and it’s followed me through Japan, through D.C., through Korea, everywhere that I’ve lived,” she said. “And when I was 11 and being harassed, I don’t know where I got the idea that it was my fault, and I don’t know where I got the idea that I couldn’t tell somebody about it, but it took a long time to come forward and tell my mom.”
Her mom’s reaction and the actions she took afterward helped Mille understand that it wasn’t her fault.
“But I don’t know if everybody gets the opportunity to have a conversation,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who never spoke up about harassment starting that young.”
She launched Hollaback! Korea in December with two others and it is part of an international movement active in 79 cities in 26 countries that is devoted to stopping street harassment. The group in Korea, which has since grown to 23 members hailing from different countries, encourages people to share stories on their website as a way to raise awareness about the issue and build a community of support for harassment victims.
“We don’t know what our rights are sometimes until we get to talking with other people,” Mille said.
They also urge people to demonstrate their support by intervening when they see harassment or violence. Their website offers advice about ways to intervene, from checking in with the victim, to distracting or otherwise interrupting the harasser, to appealing to an authority figure for help.
The site also has a list of organizations that provide assistance to harassment victims, some of which can arrange emergency shelter and accompany women to court or to the police station, and a mobile app that enables users to share information about sexual assault, sexual harassment and school bullying. There is also a map that tracks harassment in the city by allowing users to pinpoint incidents of harassment or intervention and share details about what they’ve experienced or observed.
However, Mille says people are not always aware of all of the things that constitute harassment, because some behaviors, like catcalling, have become normalized, and people don’t always understand consent.
“When I first came to Korea in 2006 I was warned that if I went to a motel room with a man it was considered consent for anything that would happen. I think this was a common thing,” she said.
Still, the lines between what is and isn’t classified as harassment, as well as between the various types of harassment that can occur, are murky at best.
“You know, harassment is really a very intersectional thing and even sexual harassment is very intersectional,” she said. “Almost nobody can divorce sexual harassment from the elements of racism in it or the elements of classism or homophobia or transphobia. So sexual harassment is sort of like the main buzzword, but all of the incidents that we’re seeing have elements of a lot things in them.”
Ultimately, she says it’s “the person who experienced the violence — their definition of the event is the most important one.”
But even if it’s clear that harassment has taken place, it often takes another leap to get to the next step — reporting the incident. Mille says people don’t always come forward to report harassment because in some cases they fear retribution from those around them.
“Making the decision solo, you really have to have a level of trust that it’s going to be taken seriously,” she said.”
When Burke was victimized in the United States, she recalled, she was treated like the criminal and many of her closest friends sided with her attacker.
“I don’t want to paint flowers or glittery bits on it. If you do report, it’s a hard journey,” she said. “And it sucks because it’s right in your face, it’s naked, it’s bare who your real friends are.”
She explains that reality in two words: rape culture.
“Was she drinking that night? What was she wearing? … All those things blame the victim,” she said. “Nobody is saying ‘why did this man rape her?’ or ‘why did she rape this man?’”
A rape culture also creates an atmosphere of doubt about assault victims, she said. “We assume they’re lying.”
She praised Lori Michael for refusing to withdraw her complaint and would advise anyone in a similar situation to report the incident.
“Stand your ground,” she said. “Know that you have sisters around, … ’cause you’re not alone. … Keep fighting, ’cause you’ve got warriors behind you whether you know it or not.”
> Disruptive Voices
Disruptive Voices is a community project under Varyd that seeks to build a strong community of support for people who desire, demand and aim to speak for change and empowerment.
Find them on Facebook or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
> Hollaback! Korea
Hollaback! Korea was launched in December as part of an international movement to stop street harassment.
Visit korea.ihollaback.org or find them on Facebook.
> Korea Women’s Hotline
Find them at enghotline.tistory.com or call (02) 3156-5400.
> 30 Relief centers operated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family
Call 1899-3075 (national number). Operators refer callers to the nearest one-stop center or to the Sunflower Children’s Center.
> Seoul Survivor Services
Find them on Facebook or email email@example.com.
>Jeolla Safety Alliance
Find them on Facebook.
> Migrant Women’s Emergency Support Services
Call 1577-1366 for counseling and assistance available in 11 languages or visit their website at www.wm1366.or.kr.
> The Korean Gender Café
Visit the website at koreangendercafe.blogspot.kr.
> Ilda: South Korean Feminist Journal
Visit the website at ildaro.blogspot.kr for articles translated from English to Korean.