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South Korea is considered a modern country but not when it comes to gender equality. This summer, two brutal acts of violence have stirred debate about the treatment of women there. NPR's Elise Hu has our story, and we want to warn you, it contains descriptions that may be unsuitable for some listeners.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Gangnam is the tony Seoul district made famous by its eponymous K-pop song. In May, the Gangnam subway station earned notoriety for a grim reason. A male suspect stabbed to death a 23-year-old woman in a public bathroom at the station. The suspect's explanation - that he, quote, "hated women for belittling him." She was a stranger. Security footage shows the killer passed over six men who entered the bathroom before singling out his female victim.
KIM HYUNSOO: (Through interpreter) It was the sort of crime where if you are a woman, any woman could have had this happen to them.
HU: Kim Hyunsoo is a coordinator at Korea Women's Association United, which works for gender equality.
KIM: (Through interpreter) The issues of gender violence were brought to the forefront.
HU: A week later, a young teacher on a remote island in South Korea was gang raped by three men, two of whom were fathers of her students. Prosecution is underway in both cases, but the back-to-back incidents highlighted a larger problem - how South Korean society views its women.
KIM: (Through interpreter) It's not gender violence crime that suddenly erupted. It's a problem that's existed persistently in Korean society, and it's a crime that's a result of sexual discrimination and hatred against women.
HU: Laws here forbid discrimination on the basis of gender, but changing laws is easier than attitudes. The World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 115 out of 145 countries for gender equality. That's down near Burkina Faso. It has the worst wage gap among developed nations, and from January to August of last year, nearly 90 percent of the victims who reported violent crimes were women.
CHOI CHANGHAENG: (Through interpreter) We've changed the law to make it more equal for men and women. But the perceptions in the systems are very old habits, and they're hard to change.
HU: Choi Changhaeng is a director at the government's gender equality ministry.
CHOI: (Through interpreter) There are voices increasingly concerned about hatred against women, so one of our measures is to encourage a culture of equality between genders.
HU: Following the Gangnam murder, the ministry last week announced a raft of measures, including widening the support network for sexual assault victims and establishing a protocol for civil society on how to respond to sex crimes. The city pledged to double the number of security cameras in public places like the Han River which bisects Seoul. And the nation's top university installed a scream detector in its women's bathrooms.
CHOI: (Through interpreter) By doing that, we expect to reduce the number of crimes against women.
HU: But some advocates, like Kim, say many of the prescriptions address the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.
KIM: (Through interpreter) So it's not about increasing the number of CCTVs. It should be more about eliminating the perceptions and the structures that perpetuate gender discrimination and hatred.
HU: Easier said than done. A growing chorus of women speaking out against violence is being met by men's rights groups on and offline. One group leader warned against reverse discrimination of men. Following the Gangnam murder, the men's rights groups staged protests at a makeshift memorial to the victim. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
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