South Korea Searches its Soul

South Korea, long largely free of street crime, has recently been shocked by a rash of brutal sex crimes and violent attacks, causing soul-searching on why such crimes have increased.

Although the media refer them as “random acts,“ social commentators regard them as emblematic of Korea’s hard-charging society, where intense competition in work, education and social life creates an ever-smaller circle of winners and a growing group of those who feel left behind.

Ahead of the country’s December presidential election, the public and the politicians are catching on to the possibility that the competitive nature of their society may be pushing those who lose the race to feel marginalized and act violently out of a sense of desperation and vengeance. All three main candidates for the presidency have made increased welfare part of their platforms. Those pushing for more social welfare note that South Korea is second only to Mexico for the smallest welfare expenditures as a percentage of GDP among OECD member countries.

The alleged perpetrator in one recent case gave a clear explanation of the source of his anguish. After allegedly attacking a young boy with a shovel, causing deep wounds to the victim’s face, the suspect told the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, “I hate the rich. I cannot be rich however hard I try because I am socially marginalized.”

That attack on the youth took place on Sept. 28, just next to Seoul’s now famous Gangnam district. Gangnam has become a global household name thanks to a smiling singer with a funny dance. Psy’s catchy tune has become the most ‘liked’ Youtube video ever and reached #2 on the Billboard charts.

International viewers and listeners have noted that the song is a parody of those who aspire to the ritzy life in Seoul’s wealthiest district and fake it if they can’t make it. Some of those who fail to make it do more than buy overpriced coffee and handbags that they can’t really afford.

The injured youth’s parents told reporters, “It’s so heartbreaking to know that the perpetrator wouldn’t have acted like a sociopath had he been properly raised at home and his school taken better care of him. We must act to prevent such a crime from happening again in our society."

A spate of similar attacks had already taken place in late August. The one that grabbed the most headlines took place in Yeouido, Seoul’s financial district, a beacon of professional success. The perpetrator reportedly waited outside his former workplace for former colleagues he said had spread rumors about him and caused him to lose his job. He stabbed four people before being subdued.

At that time, Seoul National University psychology professor Kwak Keum-joo told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, "Pent-up frustration and rage in a highly competitive society have caused the recent attacks against indiscriminate victims.”

There has also been an alarming rise in sex crimes. From 13,396 cases reported in 2007, offenses climbed to 19,498 in 2011, a 45 percent rise according to National Police Agency data. The same body of data showed that the attacker wasn’t arrested in 11.2 percent of sex crimes recorded during the period.

Crime is apparently a serious concern among the public, with 68 percent of respondents to an Oct. 8 poll by the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog saying they are “very worried” about crime. Social inequality was the next most worrisome topic at 34 percent. Crimes like muggings and burglary are rare in South Korea, so it is likely that the recent series of front-page horror stories accounts for much of this anxiety.

South Korea’s political spectrum is divided between left and right, a division shown in proposed responses to the increased violence. Progressives are asking that society reflect and acknowledge the role that intense social pressure has in creating outcasts who act out violently. To address the problem, they are asking for increased social welfare and changes to a criminal justice system that punishes criminals but doesn’t offer much in the way of rehabilitative support.

When it comes to sexual violence, some point to the decreased availability of commercial sex as the reason for the increase in crime. Police havce cracked down on prostitution in recent years, and some suggest that men low on the social ladder are now more prone to violent outbursts because it is now more difficult for them to purchase sex.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup Korea, 48 percent of respondents said they thought the decreased available of prostitution was partially responsible for the rise in sexual violence.

On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives are saying that the criminal system is too easy on perpetrators, particularly those who reoffend. In their view, society could be protected from criminals if only the punishments were harsher and therefore a stronger deterrent. In early September, the government and ruling party agreed to expand the use of chemical castration for convicted sex offenders in response to public concern.

Also in September, the police began carrying tear gas and Tasers at all times and resumed the right to stop and search anyone they say looks like they could be a knife-wielding maniac, which critics called a return to dictatorship.

There is not yet a firm consensus on what has caused the increase in violent crime. Something no one is suggesting is asking the perpetrators themselves why they sacrificed their freedom and committed such savage acts.

On the day he lost his cool and struck the young boy with a shovel, the 18 year old carried a note in his pocket that read, “There are things I can never change even if I work hard and succeed someday.” Other men (they have been men in all cases) involved in recent violence have similar tales of feeling excluded, the losers of South Korea’s grand competition. They all had financial and romantic problems, had bounced from tiny apartment to tiny apartment and unfulfilling job to unemployment.

The dominant concept of success in South Korea country is narrow: a degree from one of a few elite universities, employment at a major corporation, marriage to a tall, thin spouse with large eyes and a small face. The simple reality is that not everyone can achieve those things. For the sake of a safer and healthier society, those who are either unwilling or unable to meet the conventional goals need either more options or a social culture that makes them feel less like outcasts.