Doubts raised over subway sexual harrassment crackdown

June Kang, Sept. 26, 2016, 10:35 a.m.


On the morning of June 3, 2015, Kim Ji-hyung was on his way to work. The 31-year-old Seoulite overslept and was running late. 

Instead of taking his usual 35-minute morning commute -- he would travel from Dangsan Station to Yeoksam Station taking Seoul Subway Line No. 2 -- he decided to take a short cut by taking the express train on Line No. 9. By taking the route, he would reach Sinnonhyeon Station in about 18 minutes and be able to arrive at work on time.

But Kim said that turned out to be one of the worst decisions he’s made in his life.

When he got off at the Sinnonhyeon Station at about 8:45 a.m. after a suffocating subway ride -- Seoul Metro Line 9 has been infamous for its overcrowding -- he said he was approached by a woman in civilian clothes. 

She showed him her police ID, and told him she had been filming him throughout the ride. Then he was told he was being immediately arrested on charges of sexual assault.

“She told me she had video footage of me assaulting one of the female passengers,” he told The Korea Herald. “I told her I had no idea what she was talking about, and I was texting my girlfriend throughout the subway ride.” According to Kim, she replied: “I saw you touching that woman’s buttocks.” 

“When I told her I wanted to see the footage, she said I was not allowed to see it,” he added.

That day, Kim said he was forced to write what he claims was a false written statement. The police forcefully made him write that “he pressed his erection against the woman on a crowded subway train,” he said.

“It was my first time experiencing anything like this, and I didn’t know I had the option of refusing to write the statement,” he said.

Instead of paying 3 million won ($2,700) requested by the victim as a settlement money, Kim decided to plead not guilty. In May, he was sentenced guilty for the first trial. He is appealing the verdict. “I’m willing to go to the highest court (to prove my innocence),” he said.

“The train of hell”

Seoul Subway Line 9, which quickly connects western Seoul to southern Seoul, has been notorious for its overcrowding since its launch in 2009. 

Infamously dubbed the “train of hell,” the specific line had been running with only four subway cars until recently, whereas other lines in Seoul normally operate with eight to 10 cars per train. It was only last month the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced it was introducing an extra express train during rush hours to tackle overcrowding.

Experts have said the builder of the line miscalculated demand when establishing the subway line. It connects Seoul’s major corporate areas, including southern Seoul and Yeouido, and it is often the fastest way for those who live in Seoul’s western regions to get to work near Sinnonhyeon Station or the National Assembly.

As of last year, the degree of congestion of a Line 9 express train from Gayang Station to Yeouidio Station was 234 percent, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. A subway car’s degree of congestion reaches 100 percent if it houses 160 passengers, while about 53 of them are sitting down. Congestion of 234 percent means about 370 passengers are housed in a single subway car, 320 of them standing squeezed in next to each other.

“It’s a living hell, literally,” said Kim Seo-eun, a 29-year-old Seoul resident who has taken the specific line during rush hour in the past. “You can’t breathe. I once felt like someone could die from suffocation or being squeezed to death.”

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has been saying such congestion makes female passengers on Line 9 vulnerable to sexual offenses, such as unwanted touching and grabbing. According to a report last year the agency submitted to the National Assembly, the number of reported sexual assault cases that occurred on Line 9 trains increased dramatically from 2014-2015, from 41 to 161.

Yet Kim Ji-hyung argued the Seoul police may be taking advantage of the overcrowding of the subway line in order to obtain high performance marks. 

While overcrowded trains may make it easier for potential perpetrators to commit sex offenses, they also make it difficult for those who are falsely accused to prove their innocence, he said.

After being charged with sexual assault by prosecutors, he was finally able to access the video footage made by the police officer through his lawyer. Turns out, the officer had been following and secretly filming Kim using a smartphone from the platform of Dangsan Station. The footage did not start from a scene inside the congested train.

“I still have no idea why they targeted me from the very beginning,” he said. “I was walking back and forth on the platform (before taking the train) to find the subway car that would be closest to the exit. The police later said this behavior of mine looked ‘suspicious.’”

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Korea stated that in order for a state-run investigative agency to legally create and use video footage as evidence, it should be filmed from “during or after (when) the criminal activity takes place” in a ruling of a case involving a group of North Korean sympathizers who police claimed had violated South Korea’s National Security Law. 

The Korea Herald had access to the footage through Kim and was able to confirm that it indeed started from a scene on the platform. However, as the train was extremely overcrowded, and the footage was poorly shot, it was hard to discern from an unprofessional point of view what actually happened.

The money issue

Moon Jung-won, a 34-year-old Seoulite, experienced something similar last year. It was on the morning of Nov. 28, and as usual he took a Line 9 train from Yeomchang Station to get to his work near Samseong Station in southern Seoul. He was wearing a long coat and had his backpack across his chest. Like Kim’s, the ride was an extremely congested one. He was standing along with many passengers crammed in the train.

When the train had nearly reached Yeouido Station, a person in civilian clothes approached him and showed him a police ID. He was asked to get off the train and was told that he was being arrested for a sexual offense. He was told that the officer had film footage of him committing the crime. He was later indicted. His charge, too, said he was “pressing his genitals against the woman on a crowded subway train.”

“The officer told me I harassed the woman who was standing in front of me,” he told The Korea Herald. “There were two women who were standing in front of me. I didn’t even know which woman the officer was talking about.”

After deciding to plead not guilty, Moon said he faced a major predicament: He felt he couldn’t afford to go through the trial. Most of attorneys he contacted said he’d need to pay about 6 million won to 9 million won if Moon wanted to be represented by them. “And this price was to get my indictment suspended,” Moon said. “They said if I want to get a not guilty verdict, I’d have to pay more.”

According to the law, sex offenses in public place can be fined up to 3 million won. “Once you pay the fine, you become an ex-convict,” he said. “But still, paying the fine was much cheaper than hiring a lawyer. And trials can last for years. Most ordinary working people (in Korea) can’t afford such time and money. I heard that in most cases (like mine), the accused just offer to pay 3 million won to the victim and try to settle the case.”

Unlike Kim, Moon said his case ended rather abruptly as his victim told prosecutors she was unsure if she was indeed assaulted by Moon. She also told them she didn’t want Moon punished. The woman never reported Moon, and didn’t think she was harassed until after police approached and told her they saw her being assaulted on the train. Prosecutors eventually suspended Moon’s indictment. 

“I still had to write a statement saying I regret my ‘wrongdoings,’” Moon said. “I told people in the prosecutors’ office that I’m innocent, but I was told that I should be ‘grateful’ that my indictment was suspended.”

In the end, Moon said, he just wanted to get over with the case as soon as possible. He said people around him, even some of his best friends, didn’t believe him when he told him he did not commit the crime. 

“One of them told me, ‘if you end up getting a lawyer, at least tell him or her everything honestly,’” he said. “And this is what I heard from my friends. I didn’t even want to think about how my work colleagues would react if they heard what happened. My professional career could’ve been seriously ruined.”

Moon said he is still deeply hurt by the experience. “I no longer take Line 9,” he said.

Debate on over-policing

South Korea posted its first tax revenue surplus in four years last year, ending its third straight year of tax revenue deficits through 2012-2014. The Finance Ministry in February said a rise in property transactions, caused by eased regulations on mortgage financing, resulted in higher transfer tax income.

Yet in June, Rep. Park Ju-min of The Minjoo Party of Korea said the current administration has collected almost 5 trillion won more worth of tax money from just fines and penalties since President Park Geun-hye took office in 2013, citing a report submitted to his office by the Finance Ministry.

The lawmaker’s office showed that, since 2013, the annual average increase of revenue from penalties and fines was 7 percent, higher than the 3 percent rise in gross domestic product in the same period. 

Rep. Park stressed that Korea had been suffering from a tax revenue shortage throughout this period, to the degree that supplementary budgets had to be enacted to make up for it.

“It is likely that over-policing or over-fining may have taken place to make up for shortage of tax revenue,” Park said in a statement. “There should be other ways to increase tax revenue, such as increasing corporate tax levels.”

A university law professor, on condition of anonymity, said it was possible both Moon and Kim were targeted by police because of over-policing. 

“Over-policing is hard to tackle as it is difficult for the victims to prove that they were unjustly treated,” he said. “It’s hard because for them, the perpetrators are not fellow civilians, but authorities who have the power to arrest you and punish you.”

Right of the accused

In 2012, the Assembly revised its Criminal Act to better combat sex crimes by making the specific crime an “offense that is not subject to complaint.” Before the revision, no sex offense was punishable without a legal complaint from the victim. 

“This gives the authorities the ultimate right to decide and punish the offenders -- regardless of the victims’ opinions on the case,” said Seo Bo-hak, a professor of criminal law at Kyung Hee University Law School. “As long as the officer had the valid proof and gave the Miranda warning, I don’t think the police did anything that was against the law (in Kim’s case). Until he is given a not guilty verdict, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on the issue.”

However, Choung Wan, another law professor at Kyung Hee University, said Kim should’ve been allowed to see the video footage, even without a lawyer, the day he was arrested. 

“Korea still has a long way to go when it comes to protecting rights of victims of sex crimes,” he said. 

“But there are also existing problems when it comes to protecting the rights of the accused. Most people who get arrested for the first time aren’t aware of what the Miranda warning is and don’t know how to contact a lawyer at a police station.”

Moon’s victim, in spite of the notification she received from the police, didn’t want Moon to be punished as she never felt she was harassed. The victim in Kim’s case, who eventually said she wanted him to face legal consequences, also did not directly make a report, according to court documents. When asked by authorities why she never voluntarily filed complaints against Kim, she said she was unsure whether Kim indeed harassed her until the police officer approached her at the station and informed her she was assaulted.

“I think most people can tell the difference between inevitable body contact in a crowded subway train and a deliberate sexual assault,” said Kim Ji-young, a 28-year-woman who said she has been sexually harassed on public transport in Seoul. A man had touched her breasts and run away, she said.

“But I guess it would be hard not to believe when a police officer comes to you and tells you were harassed while you weren’t noticing. While I personally would not ask for punishment if I wasn’t aware myself, those who do it should be respected. There are many women who don’t file complaints even if they know they were assaulted. Many are afraid of victim blaming and social stigma against victims of sexual harassment.”

‘Why I am appealing’

Like Moon, Kim Ji-hyung struggled to make a decision when he learned the expense required to hire a lawyer. He said the turning point was meeting his current attorney, who offered to represent him at a reasonable cost. He could’ve tried to settle the case with funds he paid his lawyer -- this way he wouldn’t risk being an ex-convict -- but decided to plead not guilty.

He argued that what police have done to him is a “crime that has been legalized,” and he assumes there are many people who are or have been in the same situation.

“Being involved in a sex crime (case), even if you are innocent, can be critical to your personal relationships and professional career,” he said.

“That’s why most people just pay the settlement funds or fines and keep the experience a secret. But I think this should stop. The authorities shouldn’t take advantage of overcrowded public transportation and the justice system where in a number of cases, fines are cheaper than hiring an attorney.”

Above all, he said he’s going through the trial for himself. 

The day he was arrested, he broke down into tears in front of the officers, as he felt humiliated by the accusations. The officers allegedly used sexually explicit and violent language when they described what they thought he did in the subway.

“I’m going to the highest court if that’s necessary,” he said. “I want to be able to tell myself that I’ve done everything that I could to prove my innocence.”

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