Compared to many cities in the West, the level of street violence and other minor crime is low. Expats often remark that they feel much safer walking home at night in Korea.
But when they do fall victim to crime, the situation is often more complicated than at home. As well as common distrust of the police, many are unaware of their rights, the legal system, or even the proper way to seek help.
The Jeolla Safety Alliance is a group for foreigners in Gwangju and South Jeolla Province that seeks to help with some of these issues. It was set up to promote safety awareness, help prevent the occurrence of violent crimes, and aid those victims of violent crimes after the event.
The group is still new, prompted by the alleged rape of an English teacher by a taxi driver on her way home from the hospital in Gwangsan-gu in Gwangju on Oct. 30. The incident led to a huge online discussion on a forum for local expats.
“Many of the foreigners were surprised an event like this could happen, because many of us thought that Korea was much safer than our own home countries and it wouldn’t happen here,” said co-founder Nancy Harcar.
“It brought up different issues of how things like this happen, and what could be done to possibly prevent incidences in the future. Maria Lisak, Laura Sparley and I were really motivated to try and affect a change in this area, so we immediately put up the JSA group and agreed to work together on the problem.”
Harcar points out that some of the most simple problems have to do with a lack of cultural and other awareness.
“In my home country, I know where the ‘bad neighborhoods’ are, I can tell who is behaving in a threatening way,” she said. “Here, we do not know these things.”
She said that they plan to write advisory articles on cultural situations and how to speak up for yourself in a non-offensive but firm way.
Harcar added that one of the most common worries involved workplace interactions, in which a foreign employee was unsure about the limits of what was normal and how to assert themselves when they felt uncomfortable.
“Many of us are here through work visas, and so are guests in this country. That can cause us to feel trapped in a bad situation because we are afraid to make trouble,” she said.
“Many of us are far away from home and family and friends for the first time. In many ways we lack a support system if things go wrong. Predators can use those weaknesses to their advantage.”
Harcar said that the group was wary of creating a negative impression between expats and Koreans. She was keen to stress that they were aware that such cases were exceptional. She said they had made efforts to stop the case from becoming a focal point for expat antipathy toward Koreans, while also being aware of the negative campaigning against foreigners by groups such as the Citizens Group for Proper English Education (commonly known as Anti-English Spectrum).
“We also want to stress that this is just not a problem of foreigners being victimized by only Koreans, and that foreigner-on-foreigner crime is a very real occurrence as well.”
The JSA is still fairly new, so much of the activity has been in planning, information sharing and fundraising.
Harcar said that Lisak and Sparley have been leading fundraising initiatives through activities such as selling handmade soaps and baked goods. They are planning a fundraising event in the spring.
The group also plans to post flyers at local expat hangouts that give information on topics such as safety for New Year’s Eve, numbers to call and safe places to go.
“We are a very new group, so we are just in the process of planning and trying to figure out what kinds of activities will have a good impact on safety and safety awareness,” said Harcar.
“In talking with our local lawyer contact, he talked about how a crime victim has to pay for their own hospital bill or rape kit when they are attacked and go to the police. We want to help with that.
“We wanted to make sure we could put these people in contact with advocates like English-speaking counselors and lawyers that could help them through this horrible time.”
Some things that they have discovered have been surprising, such as differences in the information available to the public.
“I think one interesting thing I learned was that arrest records are not public record in Korea, only actual convictions. So unless someone is tried and convicted, which is very unlikely, people will not be aware of someone that is a multiple offender,” she said.
“One thing that was surprising is the number of foreigners that have reached out to us, describing situations where they were touched in an inappropriate way or uncomfortable about a cultural exchange in the past in Korea and did not know what to do.
“Other foreigners have let us know they have been victims of assaults here in Korea in the past and had nowhere to turn. The problem is far more pervasive than we thought.”
Harcar stressed that the initiative was reliant on community involvement, and that the amount of work involved meant that they plan to keep their activities local for the foreseeable future. However they suggested that in future they may cooperate with others who want to set up similar initiatives in other parts of Korea, and with Korean groups involved in preventing violent crimes.
She suggested that those who wanted to get involved first check their group page on Facebook, which has information about upcoming events, safety tips and safety warnings.
“We are accepting suggestions and questions on situations that folks have concerns about,” she said. “We very much want to be a place people can submit and share information with each other in English and make it easily accessible.”
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org)