Watching shadows in Hongdae

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Watching shadows in Hongdae

The violent death last month of a Hongik University student didn’t come as a surprise to Ku Ja-eun, a junior and a resident of the university area known as Hongdae.
“Even before I started school here at Hongik University, I heard rumors that the neighborhood was really violent,” said Ms. Ku. “I heard there were a lot of gangsters and perverts on the streets, as well as drunks.”
But now, according to the rumors, there’s far worse than that on the streets of Hongdae.
A knife-wielding serial killer who preys on women. Who kills for the fun of it. Six victims so far.
It isn’t true, but that’s never stopped people from talking.

Hongik University is the center of a unique area in Seoul, a neighborhood full of young artists and free-thinkers rebelling against conservative culture. The university itself is known for its prestigious art department, and the presence of so many art students has influenced the feel of the neighborhood, from coffeehouses to dance clubs.
In recent years, the area has become one of the more popular hangouts in Seoul for young people. Its dance clubs, open late and boasting reasonable cover charges, have drawn large numbers of young Koreans and expatriates from throughout Seoul and beyond. The recent addition of “Club Day,” in which people can pay a single price to get into numerous clubs on the last Friday of each month, draws particularly large crowds, and has created a mini-culture of its own.
With its jubilant atmosphere and student-heavy population, the Hongdae neighborhood has been considered relatively harmless, with the exception of the occasional Club Day brawl.
But at 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 14, neighbors found Han Jeong-ah, a 23-year-old Hongik senior, unconscious in the street near her Hongdae apartment building, according to officers at the Seoul Mapo Police Station. Ms. Han, an art student who had just returned from visiting family in Busan for the Chuseok holiday, died in a nearby hospital from her injuries three days later. Police said she had been struck on the back of the head.
The incident took the Hongdae area by surprise. Fist fights were common, but homicide was something new.
And the fact that the victim was a student made Hongik University students think they could be next.
The story of Ms. Han’s death spread like wildfire, new “facts” being added as the story passed from person to person, until an urban legend was born.
“I heard that the girl was murdered and that the assailant slit her throat,” said Bae Ji-seung, a senior. “There was also a rumor that it was a serial killer.”
Students began paying closer attention to dark corners and alleyways. People walking in the area began to cluster in groups when the streets seemed deserted.
“After the murder, boys were walking girls to their homes, because the assailant was said to attack only girls,” Mr. Bae said.
It was said that the killer had already claimed six victims ― and that some women had been attacked, resisted fiercely and broken free.
“I think the killer was one of the students at Hongdae,” volunteered Gwon Soon-min, a musician and a regular at one of the Hongdae clubs.
There was also a rumor that Hongik University had been trying to keep news of the case from spreading, because officials feared a drop in applications with college entrance exams approaching. (The school denied this.)
Ku Ja-eun said she and her friends had begun making sure to get home before dark.
“Of course you’re scared,” said Ms. Ku. “You don’t want to be the next victim, now do you?”
What angered Ms. Ku the most, she said, was how cold-blooded the killing was ― at least, in the version of the story she heard.
“I was told that it was not a rape or a robbery, but that the murderer killed the person just for fun,” said Ms. Ku.

Nonsense, says Jin Chang-hyeon, the police detective at the Mapo station who is in charge of the case.
“Who says it’s a murder?” yelled an exasperated Mr. Jin. “We’re not looking at it as murder.”
Evidence suggests the killing was accidental, not premeditated, Mr. Jin said. And certainly, he said, Ms. Han was the only person killed.
“We are aware of the rumors including the serial killer, but all of it is not true,” Mr. Jin said, annoyed.
“No other victims were reported, or even close encounters.”
Local media, including the Yonhap news agency, reported the killing as a case of peokchigi, a robbery in which the victims are hit on the head and their personal belongings are stripped away.
Mr. Jin would not comment on whether he thought the killing had happened during a robbery. Nor would he give further details about the weapon, or the suspect.
The Mapo police did, however, deny that the suspect was not a 178-centimeter-tall man ― a bizarrely specific detail that was circulating among Hongik students.
“It’s a working case,” was all Mr. Jin would say.
He did add that the persistent rumors were damaging in themselves. “Rumors are dangerous because they create unnecessary panic,” he said.
What’s more, he said, the rumors in Hongdae were actually impeding the investigation into Ms. Han’s death, taking up officers’ time with false stories and phone calls from reporters.
He said students should restrain themselves from blowing the case out of proportion.
“People, including the media, should know better,” said Mr. Jin.
The rumors continue, however ― perhaps reflecting the anxieties of a changing neighborhood.
“There’s too many odd people around this neighborhood in recent years,” a Hongdae store owner grumbled. “It was bound to happen.”

by Lee Ho-jeong
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