I have been asked if Korea is safe by many people back home and my answer was yes. And it’s true, Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. I thought I was safe too until I had my own experience with sexual harassment in Korea.
Living in Korea, I feel comfortable walking alone 24 hours a day without being cat-called by random men. I also feel safe leaving my belongings (even laptop!) unattended in the cafes. I’m not even worried about losing my things, because the probability of getting it back is so high.
One time I accidentally left my bag full of valuables on a KTX train. Low and behold, someone had turned it in to the Lost and Found office at the station. Nothing inside was taken.
Ironically, for such a ‘safe’ county, violence and crimes against women are commonplace. Hankyoreh investigated court verdicts from January 2016 to November 2016 on, and found about 500 femicides across the period. Unfortunately, protection for women against such violent crime is really difficult to access, particularly for foreign women.
I think that women need to increase their awareness on personal safety and what to do when you end up in an abusive situation before deciding to make the move to South Korea. When such things happen, it is really common to experience shock, unable to think or react to the situation as it is occurring.
Plus, even if we want to take action against our abusers, we may not know where to start. Drawing from my personal experience, I come up with a few tips on how to report sexual harassment in South Korea.
My experience was a ‘light’ case of sexual harassment. I hesitated to ‘make it bigger’ by reporting it to the police. And so, I decided to report the sexual harassment case to the university because the perpetrator was also a student.
The university did not have a proper infrastructure to deal with the case. The faculty did not even know how to begin to process the case and so they sent me to the Gender Equity Office.
The ‘investigation’ process took several months. Plus, they did not even bother to explain the procedures of processing the case. Throughout the process, they left me in the dark, not giving any follow up unless I asked first.
The investigation ended with a slap on his wrist. He only needed to write a letter saying that he would not do it again. The university even refused to give me any documentation related to the case. They explained that they couldn’t tell me any information or provide any documents related to the case because they needed to protect his identity and reputation. Until the end, I felt like they protected him more than me.
Needless to say, the way they handled the case took more of a toll on my mental health than the sexual harassment itself. I reported my case because I didn’t want him to continue sexually harassing other female students. I questioned a lot of things throughout the ordeal. My case was ‘light’ enough but it was this difficult – what about bigger cases, like rape? Or harassment cases between students and professors? Could they handle it?
Was it because we were foreigners so they handled it like this? Would it have been any different if the perpetrator were a Korean, or I were a Korean? My university is one of the biggest and most prominent in Korea, yet they handled it this way. What about smaller universities?
Such thoughts lead me to write this article. KoreabyMe has a large following among foreigners. I hope that my experience, can somehow help others to deal with sexual harassment in Korea.
#1 Collect Evidence of your Sexual Harassment
Any piece of evidence is essential for filing your case. It is advisable to get CCTV recording if it is possible. CCTVs are everywhere in Korea. However, sometimes you will need police approval to access the footage. In my case, I found that my school deleted their CCTV footage regularly. So, do your best to get the footage immediately after the sexual harassment incident occurs.
Unfortunately, self-recorded video and audio can’t be used to report cases unless the perpetrator also consents. Recordings might still be useful to help you be taken seriously by investigators, but sometimes you cannot use it as ‘proper evidence.’
Furthermore, text messages can serve as evidence. The university also asked me to provide the printed text exchanges with my friends shortly after the incident occurred. According to staff, if I didn’t immediately tell my friends about it, they would interpret the sexual harassment as being personally insignificant and not very traumatic. I know that sounds disturbing, but that is how things work here.
Witnesses are also essential for such cases. But unfortunately, most sexual harassment cases happen when you are alone together with your abuser. I suggest that at least, you do not go to report your case alone. Although they didn’t witness the sexual harassment firsthand, they can be a witness to your distress. If there is correspondence between you and an institution like a school don’t deal with the case through phone calls. Communicate through text and email so that you have evidence that you tried to report your case.
#2 Report Sexual Harassment to the Police
Not reporting my sexual harassment case to the police was my biggest mistake. South Korean police officers might not solve the case, or do anything for you, but they have the ‘legal power’ to put the case on the record. Reporting to the university will not even make a dent on the perpetrator’s academic record, let alone criminal record. Universities are mainly concerned with making sure your sexual harassment case doesn’t get out and damage their reputation.
Moreover, the police can legally summon the perpetrator(s) and put their name(s) on record. Sometimes the police can also fine the culprit, so you can get some form of compensation to cover mental health counseling or medical bills.
You might hesitate to approach a police station due to language barrier. However, my landlord (who is a former police officer) told me that a large (district) police stations provide interpretation service for foreigners. If possible, you can also report your case with a Korean friend to help soften any language barriers.
After the police finishes their investigation, make sure you get hold of the official investigation report. It may help you if you want to make a report to the media, or appeal the case.
#3 Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
The whole ordeal would take a toll on anyone’s mental health. In my case, I felt overwhelmingly stressed and helpless during the investigation. And so, I sought help from two sources: the school counselling and the Seoul Global Center.
If you are an international student, you can seek help from your university’s counselling service. At my university, they provided 12 free sessions of psychological counselling.
Firstly, they asked me to fill in the form about my issues. Secondly, they conducted an interview to help me find the right counselor. Finally, the therapist contacted me through email to decide on a therapy schedule. Unfortunately, for foreigners, there are only a few therapists who can speak English.
Another option to seek help is through Seoul Global Center (SGC). They have call centers for foreigners and you can even speak to staff members who speak your native language. When I sought help at the SGC, they contacted a psychology counselling center for me, and arranged an appointment. There is a waiting list so it took a month for me for the SGC to contact me.
For therapy through the SGC, I paid KRW 50,000 for 5 sessions (the normal fee would be more than KRW 100,000 per session) and I also got some tests covered by the center. You don’t have to worry about language barrier, because SGC find you a counselling center with English-speaking therapists.
Seoul Global Center Psychological Counseling Project Leader's Name: Go Mi-hyeon Phone Number:02-2075-4149 Center's Phone Number: +82-2-2075-4180 Foreigner Help Hotline: 1345
Where to Get Help
To contact the Seoul Counseling Center for Migrant Women Click Here
To contact Korea Women’s Hotline Click Here
For access a 24Hr hotline dial 1336 (Multi-lingual services available)
You can also contact your local woman’s hotline on Instagram. You can do this by searching the name of your city or region, followed by ‘여성의전화’ . They provide legal support and counseling for victims of gendered crimes of all kinds. Additionally, they can provide free shelter and medical care if you need it.
Lessons Learned About Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment or dating violence may happen to anyone regardless where you are. However, Korea happens to have issues with crimes against women, though they may not admit it openly. If one come about to know Korea from the romantic dramas, they may develop a rose-tinted glass to view the country, putting the country in a high pedestal. My only advice is to remove such rose-colored glasses before entering Korea, and start to objectively research about this country to ensure your own safety.
For basic information on how to report various crimes in Korea, Click Here.