Messages at a vigil for a young woman who was brutally murdered in Gangnam.

Let's Talk About the Toxic Way South Korea Is Handling its Rape Problem

A culture of secrecy, litigiousness, and gender inequality keeps victims from coming forward, while perpetrators freely celebrate their crimes online.

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21 May 2016, 12:00am

Messages at a vigil for a young woman who was brutally murdered in Gangnam.

Trigger warning: this article contains some graphic content.

The photos were terrifying.

In one an unconscious woman is shown with knives inserted into her vagina by their handles.

Another shows a woman with what looks like a screwdriver inserted into her vagina by the blade. A third, again unconscious, has what appears to be her drivers' licence wedged into her vagina to identify her to the website's users:

"My adorable girlfriend, gets hammered even with just two beers," reads a post accompanying a fourth image. "I've already let three other men rape her and come in her vagina. Today I would like to give an invitation to you."

Another man claims to have posted an image of his sister, naked from the waist down and invites others to rape her. One user leaves a comment describing how he would do so.

Someone mentioned Sora.net while I was talking with South Korean rape victims following last month's story about Australian woman Airdre Mattner who fell into a public battle with police after they botched her rape investigation.

The website was explained to me as half porn site and half 4chan, only that description failed to convey how many of the site's one million users utilise it to plan, carry out, and document rapes, sell date-rape drugs, and post images captured from cameras hidden in homes and public bathrooms.

And Sora.net was not a product of the dark web, but freely accessible from any internet browser, to anyone with an active connection.

Though its very existence with South Korea was illegal and evidence was publicly available, no prosecutions are known to have occurred against its users, and authorities took no serious steps against its owner during most its 15-year lifespan, partly because doing so was considered too legally complicated.

It was only when investigators from the Netherlands and the US became involved that the site was finally taken offline last month. Until then, it had operated as a rare, unfiltered window into the raw violence of those who wish to harm women.

A candlelight vigil on May 19 at Gangnam subway station for a 23-year-old woman who was stabbed to death by a man she didn't know. Image supplied.

For years now, South Korea has been trying to build a legal system to deal with the problem. As Dr Kyungja Jung, of the University of Technology Sydney told me, the country has come far since the days when police themselves would sexually assault detained female activists.

"There has been tremendous changes in legislation, services, and programs for the victims," she said.

Neither is South Korea the only country struggling with the issue. All countries experience some baseline level of sexism and the latest numbers from the World Health Organisation suggest 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence.

But South Korea, a country with one of the most influential youth cultures in Asia, is also a society with a deep gender inequality according to the World Economic Forum which ranks the nation 117 out of 142, putting it alongside Qatar and Nigeria.

This is a subject Koreans do not like to discuss, partly because defamation laws in the country are strong, making criticism of the government, police, or major corporations dangerous. Many of those I contacted over the last two weeks were afraid to talk for fear of a lawsuit, though few would say so outright.

When they responded, they were often "too busy." One person who worked in a frontline support service for rape victims told someone who had contacted them on my behalf: "This is a sensitive issue and I am Korean."

Those more willing to speak out were young activists. One male activist who worked on a team which monitored rapists on Sora.net told me that in 1995, seven out of 10 women were victims of violent crimes, but that number has increased to nine out of 10. Because I can't speak Korean, I cannot easily verify those numbers, but I asked him why he thought that was.

"There are two major reasons," he said. "One is fast industrialization and social development, the second is values and customs from Chosun dynasty like Confucianism. I believe the mixture of these two made the situation today."

"We left our culture and philosophy back in the time to go faster."

That, he said, has created problems as submissive gender roles for women have changed, making some men anxious. The result is a growing pattern of violence directed against women, which is often poorly handled by the police.

One Korean woman, contacted through a Korean-speaking activist, only shared her experience on condition of anonymity. Her rapist, she said, was her brother in law and even though he confessed, the officers investigating refused to charge him for anything other than "sexual harassment".

"When the police interviewed me, they kept asking, 'Why did you do that? Why didn't you resist?'" She said.

"I said I was scared. I asked for a female police officer, but every time I was interviewed, the police officer changed. They kept asking why I didn't defend myself. I had to repeat myself to different officers multiple times... It felt like they were asking me to remember over and over what had happened to me."

Another Korean woman, contacted the same way, explained how she was raped after meeting up with co-workers for drinks. She remembered losing consciousness and then waking up in a hotel next to a naked man. When she reported it to the police with her boyfriend, the officers suggested she was a "gold digger."

Later that same day, she was raped a second time by her boyfriend.

"I was crying, screaming, and begging him not to," she said. "I could not report this incident because I was afraid the police would only further discredit me if I told them I was raped by my boyfriend."

Out of six women I spoke to, all but one had similar stories of gender-based violence followed by a failure of police to act. In the one case where the victim praised police for their professionalism in investigating her attempted rape, she was instead harassed by the offender's family into signing an out-of-court settlement.

A 34-year-old man arrested over the Gangnam stabbing told the police he carried out the attack because he felt "belittled by women."

I contacted the National Police Agency to discuss police policy around sexual assault, but I was told the only officer who could speak about it was "away on vacation."

And these horror stories are not isolated. In 2004, 41 male high school students raped several female students over the course of 11 months in what came to be known as the Miryang gang rape. None were ever convicted of criminal charges.

In 2014, an alleged rapist was acquitted because his penis was found to be too curved to have entered the victim's vagina unaided. Last week a South Korean court said a 13-year-old girl with a mental disability who had run away from home had not been raped. Instead the men involved were prosecuted for prostitution.

The photos of post-it notes in this article were taken at a vigil for a 23-year-old woman who was last week stabbed to death in a Gangnam bathroom by a man who claims he "hated women," catching national attention in a country where murders are rare.

These stories are fucked up. There is no other way to describe it. But with each new headline, a little more transparency and openness is achieved and those fighting for change are optimistic. Korean society, they say, is changing and for the better. The West had 300 years to get it together and is still trying. If Korea decided to, equality could be achieved a lot faster.

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