I t was on March 26, 2021, when a terrible murder was committed in an apartment in Nowon-gu, Seoul. The murderer, Kim Tae-hyun, who met the female victim virtually through an online game, disguised himself as a delivery man to commit the crime. As he allegedly intruded into the victim’s home, he killed three women in total, including the victim’s mother and sister. According to the investigation, Kim had stalked the victim for three months, after she had refused to meet him in person. Such a shocking crime evoked public indignation and the problem of stalking came to the forefront in Korean society. Lee Sung-dae, a Professor in the Department of Police Administration at Hansei University, explained the present condition of stalking: “Contrary to the general understanding, stalking has been managed under the Minor Offenses Act as continuous harassment because there was no official law for stalking. Thus, it is safe to say that there are virtually no official statistics to identify the status of stalking. However, considering that the number of violent cases against the Minor Offenses Act has increased from 312 cases in 2013 to 583 cases in 2019, the number of stalking cases also seem to increase accordingly.”
Punishment on Stalking So Far
Unlike other crimes which conform to separate laws, stalking has been penalized in a different way. Under the Minor Offenses Act, acts of stalking, like taking actions that create an air of anxiety or continuously harassing others, were only charged with a fine of 100,000 won. Meanwhile, if such stalking acts resulted in a ‘serious crime’, it could be punished according to its results, such as violence, housebreaking, homicide, compulsion, etc. In other words, stalking was mostly punished in accordance with different laws, instead of a certain punishment regulation that solely focused on stalking itself. “Since each punishment regulation has a different purpose, stalking has been punished in a relatively weak way, especially considering the severity of damage and the potential for further development into other criminal acts,” added Professor Lee Sung-dae. In addition, comparing punishment on stalking in Korea with that in England shows an obvious difference. England enacted the Protection from Harassment Act in 1997, which strictly allows legal punishment when the act of painfully bothering others is repeated more than twice. The intensity of punishment varies depending on the specific action, from prohibition orders to strict criminal punishment. Moreover, England has a legal basis to check the criminal record of one’s date, known as the Clare’s Law, which could be a preventive measure on stalking. Seeing that England deals w i t h s t a l k i n g through independ e n t l a w s , i t becomes clear how weak Korea has handled stalking so far.
Social Perception of Stalking: Importance of Culture and Education
Since stalking has mostly appeared in relationships, Korean society has regarded it as a mere affection problem between individuals for a long time. Especially, as mentioned above, the fact that stalking has been punished at the level of misdemeanor is a rebuttal that stalking has been ignored so far. However, factors that threaten human rights and safety recently came to the fore as a major social problem with high public consciousness. Along with this, people started to understand stalking as a more serious problem than in the past. Song Ho-jong, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Korea University, said that culture and education are major breakthroughs in reaching for higher social perception on stalking. “In the end, stalking crimes, like other crimes, are related to the question of whether ‘I respect the existence and rights of others as much as my own.’ There should be a culture of respect and consideration for others, for example, ‘Other people’s human rights are as precious as mine,’ and ‘Others are not controllable.’ This can be achieved through education and socialization through homes, educational institutions, and peer groups in childhood and adolescence.” In other words, it is necessary for families and educational institutions to put the priority on nurturing healthy members of society who care and respect others, rather than framing education solely on achievement and competition.
The Upcoming Stalking Punishment Act
Since the severity of stalking-related crimes is rising, it has become clear that the standard of stalking and protection of victims should be reorganized. At the time, the murder of mother and two daughters in Nowon-gu caused nationwide sympathy for strengthening the legal regulation on stalking. After a month, the heated discussion finally resulted in an actual law on stalking. After 22 years of debate, the Stalking Punishment Act was proclaimed on April 20. It will be officially enacted starting this September. According to this new law, any repeated acts that cause anxiety without justifiable reason can be punished as a crime. The level of punishment has been strengthened: if charged, one could face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won. If one uses dangerous items such as a weapon, they could be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to 50 million won.
Debates on the New Law: Will It Be Enough?
The Stalking Punishment Act could be partially effective in terms of punishment itself, in that the level of punishment for criminals will be increased and they will be aware of such strict punishment. Moreover, stronger punishment would spread the message to the public that stalking is a crime, not an act of affection. On the other hand, there is a strong point of view that the law lacks protection for victims, thus is still insufficient. The protective actions regarding victims in the new Stalking Punishment Act include separating victims from the stalker for a criminal investigation, informing victims about procedures for emergency and provisional measures, transferring victims to a stalking-related counseling center or shelter, etc. However, separation measures do not cover specific plans, such as how and for how long victims would be separated from the criminals. The fact that different measures could be taken in accordance with the attitude, experience, and surrounding conditions of the officer in charge of the case gives rise to concern. Besides, detention in jail, which seems at least the most effective, could only be made with a court decision. Therefore, such responses might be too late, in that retaliatory action against the report is a high concern in stalking. Professor Lee Byung-do from the Department of Police at Seoul Digital University also supported such point of view, mentioning the problem in distinguishing stalking types. “In order to expand the application of the law, the current bill specifies the types of stalking into five: approaching, following, or blocking one’s path, watching from one’s everyday place, delivering an object directly or through a third party, delivering a message or picture through a network, and damaging an object placed around a residence. However, Germany has a difference with Korea, in that they have a comprehensive general provision of ‘other corresponding behaviors’. Supplements to the general provision seem highly n e c e s s a r y f o r active police intervention.”
Desirable Solutions for Stalking
Especially in stalking, there is not much one can do as a victim, because the situation is mostly up to the stalker. Yet, personal efforts should be made as a self-protective measure. For example, it is important not to disclose any content that can directly expose or infer personal information on social media and remove any personal information before garbage disposal. “Additionally, utilizing Women’s Safe Commute Service actively or taking personal protection service from a professional private security company are possible ways to prevent further crime,” added Professor Lee Byung-do. Meanwhile, countermeasures other than punishment should also be strongly prepared. In England and the U.S. for example, on-site police officers have wide discretion over various orders regarding a perpetrator, including restricting access. Korea should also consider introducing such an environment and maintaining laws and policies to impose immediate sanctions on those who violate orders. Even though it seems a bit late, our society has started to put efforts to create an environment where stalking could be regulated as a serious crime. Now the light has been shed on whether the newly introduced bill can overcome concerns and show practical effects in dealing with stalking. As the law has finally been passed after 22 years, concrete and professional measures are expected to be taken, so that no more tragedies happen in the future.