(Yonhap Feature) S. Korean women scramble for ‘safe breakup’ after series of femicides by ex-boyfriends

A 27-year-old woman, who asked to be identified only by her surname Lee, said she did not see it coming when her boyfriend, whom she had planned to marry, started obsessing over her ever since they started living together. "Every time I was typing on my phone, he thought I was texting other boys, and he wouldn't even let me buy coffee by myself, saying it was dangerous," she said. Lee eventually told him she wanted to end the relationship, but she couldn't escape the violence that left her eye and chin purple. For South Korean women, the term "safe breakup" is a renowned concept at a time when stories of dating violence, stalking or killings by their once-intimate partners are on the rise. "Seriously ask your boyfriend to pay off your debts for you," one comment read on an online community discussing tips on how to end a relationship safely without getting threats. Park Ga-eun, a 24-year-old designer in Seoul, said that people close to her, including herself, tend to be careful not to reveal their home addresses to their dating partners. "It's just to make sure they don't take out the anger on our families in case we want to break up," she said. A safe breakup, which refers to ending a relationship safely without stalking, violence or threats, rose to the spotlight after a recent series of gruesome intimate killings against women that sent a shock wave through the nation. Earlier this month, a 25-year-old medical school student, identified by his surname Choi, was arrested on charges of stabbing his girlfriend to death on the rooftop of a building in southern Seoul on March 6. Choi, who has admitted to having premeditated the murder, reportedly told police he had committed the crime after his girlfriend told him she wanted to break up. In another high-profile case in December, a South Korean man in his 50s, who holds a U.S. attorney license, allegedly bludgeoned his wife with a blunt weapon and choked her to death at his residence in Seoul. The couple, who have two children, were known to be undergoin g a divorce trial while living apart, and the crime took place when the wife was visiting her husband's house to retrieve a bag belonging to her daughter. Experts say the recent string of violence targeting women is deeply rooted in the prevailing perception that equates men's will to control or possess women as a sign of "manliness and masculinity." "Men kill women after a breakup, when they should be going through heartaches, singing sad songs or drinking, like how normal people go through a breakup," said Heo Min-sook, a research officer at the National Assembly Research Service with her expertise in women's studies. In South Korea, at least 138 women were killed by their male partners last year, and some 311 others survived attempted murder by their intimate counterparts, according to media reports gathered by the Korea Women's Hot Line. The number of people detained on charges of dating violence has also been consistently on the rise, recording 13,939 last year, a 55.7 percent leap compared with 2020 , data from the National Police Agency showed. "This means they don't respect their partners as equal human beings, but as their possession, subjects of their control and domination," Heo said, adding this leads certain men to identify the breakup as losing their grip on their partners and hence leads them to seek ways to "punish" them for it. The tendency to regard such violence as a private matter between two individuals adds to the problem, said Park Ye-rim, who works at the counseling center for the Korea Women's Hot Line to consult victims of gender-based violence. Park also criticized structural sexism, which blames women for what happened and eggs them on to find fault in themselves for the violence. "Some victims call and ask if they can still receive advice when there was no evident violence involved, saying they just had a brief dispute," Park said, adding abusive language or trying to control the victim's behavior is also a type of violence. Over half of the calls received by the Korea Women's Hot Line last year involved violence from their former or current lovers and spouses, according to Park. Currently, dating violence is punished as assault or blackmail, crimes that cannot be punished against the victim's will. Some lawmakers have pushed for the revision of a law on domestic violence to include dating violence, but many experts are skeptical of its prospects, saying the existing law itself is too outdated and needs improvement, says Min Go-eun, a human rights director at the Korean Women Lawyers Association. The current law comes with loopholes that allow perpetrators to get away with the crime without leaving a criminal record or clear their charges by taking treatment programs, she said. "There are clauses in the law that stipulate that the victim's say in whether to punish the perpetrator or not should be respected in the face of an indictment or court judgment," Min explained. "Unless the victim files for divorce, the fine penalty or punishment on the perpetrator puts an equal burden on the part of the victim," she said, adding it leads many victims to drop the case or refrain from seeking tough punishment. Also, unlike stalking crimes, which are now punishable without the victim's consent, domestic violence has yet to undergo the same changes. Meanwhile, a new bill designed to punish perpetrators of dating violence and protect victims has yet to pass through the National Assembly due to conflicting views on how to define a "dating relationship" and to what extent government authority should intervene in violence occurring in a domestic setting, according to Min. However, even if a relevant law is passed, legal measures alone are not the magic wand to solve the problem, experts warned. "No matter how strongly we punish the offender, we can't be sure that it will prevent the crime," said Min, emphasizing efforts to change our social perceptions through persistent education to teach kids from early on of the appropriate gender roles and relationships. "Social perception on the issue ne eds to change first, which will lead to a cycle that raises awareness on such issues and policy can follow through," Park agreed. Referring to the newly coined term safe breakup, Park said it is unfortunate that people are left to come up with ways to protect themselves on their own. "I think it reflects the distrust the women in our society have about the government keeping them safe from such violence." Source: Yonhap News Agency