Friday, April 22, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 22: Crime in Korea

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today I’m going to talk about crime in Korea, and as I’ve mentioned before crime is a big problem in England, so it’s often on my mind.

England versus Korea

Crime in England is much worse than in Korea according to statistics. The robbery rate for England is 188.7 per 100,000 people – that’s worse than the United States at 146.4, and Busan which is only 24.7.

Korean policing – apart from at protests – seems almost apologetic. I think my father-in-law, who is a retired police officer, feels that the job got a lot more difficult after South Korea became democratic... But there certainly seems to be a fear of violent crime here; when I first came here I was surprised to see all the bars on the windows at low levels, and the steel apartment doors - a steel door is a hallmark of a criminal property in England. Of course though, there is a lot of non-violent crime here like counterfeiting, piracy and corporate crime.

Normally as a foreigner you might expect to be at a higher risk of falling victim to a violent crime in another country, but despite that I actually feel safer here than in England. It’s relatively safe to walk the streets at night – at least as a foreign man, it’s perhaps not so much the case for foreign women, which is a different issue [and if the racial roles had been reversed in this care, I can't see the Korea Times limiting themselves to a brief 8-line piece about it].

In Korea, you can walk around with expensive gadgets like smartphones and cameras, or use your tablet computer on the subway, so you can really benefit from the personal technology revolution in a way that’s harder to do in England, which is great. When I first came here I was really nervous about taking photos with my $250 digital camera because back then you would have had to be careful doing that sort of thing in the streets of my city [now that a digital camera can cost $30 maybe not as much, but then some people in my city would rob you for less, for fun in fact]. I’ve got used to taking photos here now, but it’s a bit of a problem when I go back home, because it’s easy to slip into the Korean way of thinking and forget to watch your back.

Witnessing crimes

I haven’t really experienced any crime in Korea directly, but I have see quite a bit. For example, in one incident we witnessed sexual harassment taking place on the subway. A man had his hand under a woman’s leg – it was summer and she was wearing a short skirt. His hand was moving further beneath her and some touching was going on. It looked suspicious at the time but we couldn’t be sure that they weren’t together – the woman was fairly expressionless even though she must have known what was happening. My wife said that if the woman moved that would prove it, and sure enough she got up and moved to another seat further down.

This kind of thing doesn’t really happen in England – certainly not in the middle of the day in a busy train. But I’ve read that 21% of women have experienced sexual harassment on the subway in Korea – so unfortunately it appears that it isn’t uncommon. Personal crime is more serious of course, but still, I was surprised when the public phone box near us was smashed – it made me think Korea was becoming like England. [I forgot to mention the fights I've seen].

It was the drink what made me do it, officer

One thing that has surprised me here is the way alcohol is used as an excuse – and defence – by people who commit crimes, especially sex crimes. And it often works too, with more lenient sentencing.

Alcohol is blamed for a lot of crime in England, where ‘binge drinking’ in large groups is a huge problem, but it’s not a legitimate excuse in court. Here it does seem more accepted, and I find there’s a hypocrisy in that – you know, that the drugs you drink here are so socially acceptable whereas the drugs you smoke - apart from tobacco - are totally not. And yet, speaking to my Korean family, I gathered that historically there was quite a lot of smoking of ‘agricultural substances’ going on in the countryside in Korea – whereas now it’s usually foreigners, especially foreign English teachers, who are blamed for being drug users here.

Native English teachers are molesting students and spreading HIV/AIDS

So how about the portrayal of foreign crime in Korea? Sometimes there are high-profile cases here. In 2007, several newspapers carried reports that foreign teachers were molesting their students and (deliberately) spreading HIV and AIDS. The reports were ‘never substantiated’, which is a polite way of saying that these newspapers had no proof and they were deliberately printing racially inflammatory here-say and lies. But what came out of these fantasy ‘facts’ that were printed by these liars was the political move for all native English teachers to be subject to mandatory HIV/AIDS testing. But ethnic Koreans were apparently exempted - even if they were born and raised in America [because apparently a Korean is not a molestation/HIV/AIDS risk whatever their background - whereas non-Koreans obviously are. A Korean once told me that 'Koreans don't get AIDS' though, so there you go].

Similarly, newspapers run scare-tactic headlines saying that the number of crimes committed by foreigners is increasing, and you know they are trying to shock and scare people. The number of crimes committed by foreigners [but are they native English teachers?] is increasing, but so is the number of foreigners [the figures are complex and there the foreign crime pro-rata crime rate does appear to be increasing - but the media likes to run simple figures that make things look worse than they are]. But let’s put it into context – in 2007 – the last year comparative figures were published, the crime rate for foreigners was 1.4%... but it was 3.4% for Koreans. So portraying foreigners as a particularly criminally-inclined group is not fair in that context.

In fact, according to the National Police Agency, rapes were up 28% last year, theft was up 25%, and murder 9%. Last year 15.8% of women said they were beaten by their husbands. Perhaps this is what the media should be focusing on rather than demanding AIDS tests for foreigners and implying that we're responsible for some kind of crime-wave.

Korea is becoming more like England

With these increasing crime figures, I fear this country is becoming more like England – and crime is changing Korea. Places I’ve visited such as Namdaemun and the gate at Beomeosa here in Busan, have been destroyed since I arrived by criminal acts. When Namdaemun happened, there was an initial report that someone thought they’d seen a foreigner running away and I was terrified. That’s the reality of being a foreigner here – I live in fear of what we might be blamed for next, and how Korean people will treat us afterwards.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-03-23 @ ~19:30

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