Seoul subway murder sparks fury over South Korea’s stalking laws
Outside the women’s restroom at a subway station in the South Korean capital is a plaque that reads: “Women Friendly Seoul.”
The words, meant to assure women of their safety, have become tragically ironic. Last week, inside the restroom, a young woman who worked at the station was brutally murdered. The man suspected of killing her had been stalking her for years.
The wall underneath the plaque has since become a shrine of messages left as notes, with women and men of all ages coming to express their fury, fear, and sorrow.
“I want to be alive at the end of my workday,” reads one. “Is it too much to ask, to be safe to reject people I don’t like?” reads another.
The mother of a teenage girl cries as she scans the messages. “Where have we gone so wrong?” she asks, now questioning whether to allow her daughter to travel to school alone.
The details of this murder have shocked the country. The 28-year-old had been working her usual evening shift at the subway station, unaware she was being watched.
Her alleged attacker, 31-year-old Jeon Joo-hwan, waited for over an hour outside the toilets, wearing gloves and a disposable shower cap, before following her inside and stabbing her to death.
It was the day before he was due to be sentenced for stalking her.
The harassment started in 2019, a year after the pair began working together. Jeon called his colleague more than 300 times begging her to date him, threatening to harm her if she refused.
When she reported him last October, he was fired from his job and arrested. But despite a police investigation and a request to the courts for him to be detained, he was never imprisoned or given a restraining order.
The victim was placed under police protection for a month, until they concluded there was nothing significant to report. Jeon then continued to threaten and stalk.
Since their daughter’s death, her parents and two younger sisters have barely left the funeral home, where her body still lies, surrounded by flowers from remorseful politicians.
The family are devastated, not only by their loss, but because she never told them what she was going through. So traumatised is her mother, she struggles to speak. She has decided to protect her daughter’s identity.
“We never worried about her,” her uncle tells me. “She was so smart and independent”. With pride he recalls how she was top of her class, winning herself a scholarship to university in Seoul.
As the oldest of three girls, she looked out for her sisters. These past years she had showed no sign of suffering, he says, suggesting this was because she had not wanted to burden them.
The only person she confided in was her lawyer, who she last messaged on the morning of her murder, the day before her stalker’s sentencing. “We are almost there”, she wrote.
Her family are now watching, along with the rest of the country, the horrifying details of her case unfold. They have exposed weaknesses in South Korea’s stalking laws and led to accusations the country does not treat violence against women seriously enough.
Until last year, stalking was classed as a misdemeanour, punishable only by a small fine. An anti-stalking law was finally passed in October, but many argued it was insufficient and would not protect victims, primarily because of its stipulation that a perpetrator can only be prosecuted with the consent of the victim.
This loophole, they say, makes it possible for stalkers to bully their victims into withdrawing cases – in the same way Jeon attempted to threaten his victim. Jeon reportedly told police he murdered her because he resented her for taking legal action.
South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has acknowledged the country’s stalking laws are insufficient and has ordered the Justice Ministry to strengthen them.
Prof Lee Soo-jung, a criminal psychologist who advises the government, says she could not sleep after she heard about the murder. “We were not able to protect her, so yes, we failed her,” she admits.
The professor is recommending the ministry remove the clause that requires victims to agree to a prosecution. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has proposed that stalking suspects who are not detained should be given restraining orders.
But despite these promises, anger is growing. This week, hundreds of people gathered in Seoul dressed in black, to protest and mourn the victim.
She was failed, the protestors shouted, by her employer, the police, and the courts, making her death symptomatic of a much bigger problem. They fear it could happen to any of them, that no space is safe.
It has evoked memories of a similar murder six years ago, when a woman in her 20s was stabbed to death in a public restroom near Gangnam station, by a man who later said he killed her as revenge for all the women who looked down on him.
To the protesters, this murder is proof that nothing has changed. “We’ve been fooled before, that change is coming”, the organisers bellowed over the loudspeakers. “Let’s see what happens this time.”
“We don’t need new laws,” said Choi Jin-hyup, director of the group Women Link. “What we need is to change authorities’ attitudes towards victims.” She blames the government, which has tied itself in knots over women’s rights.
During the recent election campaign, the president pledged to close the Gender Equality Ministry, declaring it obsolete because structural sexism no longer existed. When the gender minister visited the scene of the murder, she told reporters she did not believe this was a case of gender-based violence. There are now calls for her to resign.
At the subway station, 23-year-old Lee Chae-hui lays a white flower and bows her head.
“I’m very angry,” she says. “We keep reporting these crimes as just another mindless murder, but women are continuously stalked and attacked, and our politicians are ignoring it. People talk about how South Korea is a safe place, but as a woman in my 20s I can’t relate to this at all, I feel I live in a very dangerous society.”
Chae-hui’s friends have a phrase they use to congratulate each other: “We survived another day.”
The sentiment is echoed in dozens of Post-it messages asking: “How many more women need to die for this country to change?”