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“At the end of the work day, I just want to be alive!” – the anger of Koreans after a murder in the subway

In front of the women’s toilet at Sindang subway station in the South Korean capital is a sign reading: “Seoul – Women Friendly.”

In recent weeks, those words, meant to reassure female subway riders that the city cares about their safety, have taken on the flavor of bitter irony, because it was in this toilet that a 28-year-old woman who worked at the subway station was killed.

The person arrested for her murder is her colleague, who for more than two years has been stalking and harassing her.

Since the murder, the area under the sign has become a memorial of sorts, with messages of anger, rage, grief and fear left as notes by men and women who are unhappy with how such cases of persecution are handled in the country.

“Do I want too much – to be able to reject those I don’t like without fear,” reads one of the notes, quoted by the BBC. Another states simply and clearly: “At the end of the working day, I just want to be alive!”.

The details surrounding the murder of the 28-year-old woman shocked the country. The crime takes place during her usual evening shift at the station, unaware that she is being watched by her assailant.

He waits for her for over an hour before she visits the restroom and he follows her there. After a short struggle, the man stabbed her. In the commotion that ensued, he was caught by other employees at the subway station, but the woman died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The person arrested for the murder is 31-year-old Jeon Ju-huon. He worked alongside the victim from 2019, during which time he became obsessed with her and began harassing her over the phone asking her to date him.

The perpetrator called her on the phone over 300 times, and along with requests to meet, he threatened to hurt her if she refused him and rejected his advances.

This harassment continued for over 2 years, until in October 2021, the woman filed a report against him. Jeon is fired from his job and even briefly arrested by the police, but is subsequently released on bail.

After he is released from custody, his ex-colleague is placed under police protection for a month until the law enforcement authorities come to the conclusion that she is not in danger. But soon after the protection was lifted, he resumed his pursuit.

The day before he was to be sentenced in the harassment case, he carried out his attack. When the police catch him, he confesses to the murder and cites as his motive that he was offended by her accusation against him to the authorities.

South Korea has long had a problem with the persecution of women, one of the reasons being that until October last year the only punishment for such an act was a small fine. In October last year, a special law against such systematic persecution came into force in the country.

However, according to a number of human rights defenders, there is a loophole in it that allows many abusers to escape – criminal prosecution in such a case can only begin with the consent of the victim.

Critics of the law believe it will give many stalkers an opportunity to pressure their victims into dropping charges and thus getting away with it. And the statistics since the entry into force of the new rules speak in support of this thesis.

According to a study by South Korea’s National Police Agency, cited by the BBC, 7,152 arrests have been made since the stalking law came into effect late last year, but only 5 percent of suspects have actually been charged.

In cases where the police applied to the court to keep the suspect in custody as a measure of remand, one in three applications were rejected.

The strong public backlash led even South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to take a stand and admit that the law does not provide enough protection for victims. He also called on the Ministry of Justice to review the law and strengthen it.

However, many recalled that it was the Ministry of Justice that was the first obstacle to push through the parliament stricter rules for the prevention of such persecution practices. The department has repeatedly stated that the new legal framework is completely sufficient.

Further anger was sparked by the reaction of Gender Equality and Family Minister Kim Hyun-suk, who dismissed claims that the killing could be classified as a hate crime against women.

The minister was heavily criticized for saying she did not believe misogyny was a factor in the violence in the case, with activists pointing out that nearly 80 percent of victims of persecution in South Korea are women.

Speaking before parliament in Seoul this week, Kim sparked further anger by suggesting that the crime could have been prevented if the victim had sought advice from her ministry’s helpline and taken other preventative measures.

For a number of people in the country, this killing evoked references to another similar incident six years ago, when a woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet near the Gangam metro station. Then her killer motivated his actions with revenge against all the women who looked down on him.

For the protesters, the current killing is a sign that nothing has changed in the country regarding violence against women.

According to Choi Jin-hyup, director of the Women Link group, there is no need for new laws in South Korea, but for the authorities to change their overall attitude towards victims of such crimes.

During the recent election campaign, President Yoon Suk-yeol promised to close the Ministry of Gender Equality, declaring it obsolete because structural sexism no longer exists. Minister Kim’s statements are in line with the president’s overall vision.

Meanwhile, on the wall of the women’s toilet at Sindang subway station, under the sign Seoul cares for its women, many other women continue to share their fears.

“How many more women have to die for this country to change?” reads one of the notes.

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