Police try to calm fearful citizensBefore Lee Joo-hyun, 22, unlocks the front door of her family apartment in Hwagok-dong, she turns and checks her back. Then she raises her head to look up the staircase. Only when she’s sure there’s no one there will she open the door.
Ms. Lee started checking her back more often after a number of women were attacked by a man with a knife, three of them killed, in the southwestern part of Seoul in April and May. Most of the victims were young women returning home alone late at night.
“A girl my age got stabbed to death in front her house near this area,” said Ms. Lee. “I got freaked out to hear that the killer was waiting for her from the upper staircase.”
With the three fatal stabbings and two attempted murder cases still unsolved, many people in Seoul are worrying more about their safety. Even though a man suspected of killing at least 20 people, Yoo Yeong-cheol, was caught last month and confessed to the stabbings, many believe the killer is still out there.
Since 1976, there have been five serial killer cases in Korea. Except for one case in Hwaseong in 1986, the murderers were either caught by police or turned themselves in.
But now many people are worried the southwestern Seoul killings may be another unsolved case.
Through the Internet, paranoid posters spread tips on avoiding the southwestern Seoul stabber, such as “the murderer only kills on rainy Thursdays” or “girls in white clothes were targeted.”
News reports of Mr. Yoo’s arrest have done nothing to bolster the public’s confidence in the police. The reports said Mr. Yoo was actually apprehended by massage parlor employees, who held him until the police arrived.
Mr. Yoo later escaped from police custody, but the police found him shortly afterward.
More people are buying self-defense products such as stun guns, pepper spray and portable sirens. The Internet shopping mall Auction said it sold more than 7.8 million won ($6,500) worth of security products on July 19, right after news reports of Mr. Yoo’s arrest. It was a 66-percent increase from an average day of security products sales.
Han Jeong-kyoo, president of Damool, an online store for self-defense products, said that after July 19 his company’s sales rose 50 percent. The most popular products were pepper sprays and sirens.
Heading home earlier
The fear of crime has crimped social lives as well. In bars in college student areas, such as Sinchon, western Seoul, women are going home earlier than usual.
“Though it’s still crowded with young people until late at night, female customers are seen getting up earlier to go home these days,” said a waiter at one bar.
But some say that people are scaring themselves for no reason. “People are overreacting,” said Lee Min-kyung, a college student. “After all, the last murder case in the southwestern area was in May, and even the murder suspect has been caught.”
“Fear of crime causes people to act in a certain paranoid way,” said Lee Yung-hyeock, an assistant professor of criminal justice studies at Korea National Police University.
“But experts should realize that the worst result from a serial murder case is when we let the fear of crime run rampant among the public when people in Seoul are already vulnerable to it.”
He said those fears are made worse with constant media attention and the lack of a recovery program for the families of victims.
“Only recently have the local police begun trying to work in a victim-centered manner. Before, they were concerned only about punishing the criminal first,” said Mr. Lee.
According to Mr. Lee, in Western countries like the United States, the victims’ recovery process is considered important.
“It’s all part of the criminal justice system: The police, social workers and volunteers in public services work together,” said Mr. Lee.
But despite the lack of such a program in Korea, Mr. Lee says that the country is a safe place to live, especially compared to other nations.
According to the 2002 International Statistics Yearbook, based on studies conducted in 2000 by Interpol and 2002 by the UN Development Program, the number of homicides per 100,000 people in Korea was 2.0, while it was 5.5 in the United States, 3.7 in France, 21.9 in Russia and 32 in Mongolia.
Yet Korea has more homicide cases per capita than some of its neighbors, such as Hong Kong (0.7), Japan (1.1) and Singapore (1.0).
However, the homicide clearance rate, which is the number of homicides cleared divided by the number of reported cases, is considerably high in Korea, said Mr. Lee.
“The homicide clearance rate reaches 96 percent in Korea, while it is about 60 percent in the United States,” said Mr. Lee. “The United States is much bigger and it has deviant homicides, so it’s harder for the American police to arrest criminals.
“But even taking these factors into account, we can see from the clearance rates that Korean police are not as incompetent as the public is claiming these days.”
However, the high rate of convictions in homicide cases may have something to do with the Koreans courts’ long-held bias in favor of the prosecution. According to a recent JoongAng Ilbo report, in the past, courts held the belief that prosecutors did not make mistakes.
The article also said only recently have judges been putting the burden of proof on the prosecution, resulting in more acquittals in cases that don’t have direct evidence tying the suspect to the crime.
As for Mr. Yoo’s arrest, Mr. Lee said he isn’t sure whether it was actually the massage parlor employees who caught the serial killer suspect because he heard that the police had denied the news reports.
In any case, he said, the public always plays an important part in arresting a criminal because police cannot be like the private detectives in the movies.
“In most cases, reports from the public become the key to solving crime cases,” Mr. Lee said.
However, a 28-year-old police officer who asked to be anonymous said often it’s not the police but someone else who catches a wanted suspect.
He said he once received an official commendation for catching a person trying to rob a taxi driver. The officer said it was actually the taxi driver, a former boxer, who knocked the would-be robber down.
“All I had to do was come and put handcuffs on the guy,” the officer said. “But I was awarded.” He said this sort of thing happens all the time.
So far the police only have Mr. Yoo’s confession to go on. They haven’t found any forensic evidence that would tie him to the 26 killings that he claims he did.
Mr. Lee of the Korea National Police University said the police here aren’t as experienced in gathering forensic evidence, mainly because in the past most homicides were by people the victim knew. So Korean police would depend merely on their “intuition” to catch the criminal, said Mr. Lee.
Lack of forensic experience
Lee Hoon-dong, professor of criminal law at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said Korean police have had a hard time leading sophisticated investigations.
“The policemen are college graduates now, but in the past, a lot of them had weak academic backgrounds, and most police still follow the way their seniors lead investigations,” said Mr. Lee. “A criminal justice system of sorts exists in Korea but rarely would a lawyer be with a suspect or a victim while the police are questioning them in solitary confinement.”
What experts agree on, however, is that police are encountering more unusual kinds of homicides. So on July 1, the police formed Vi-CAT, or Violent Crime Analysis Team, which is made up of forensic science and criminal profiling experts.
Vi-CAT is modeled after the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program in the United States.
The Korean version of the special investigating team includes 20 experts in criminal psychology and will start a criminal profile system, which will involve collecting and analyzing data on suspects’ backgrounds and psychological states.
“The new and developed method should help solve some of the most deviant criminal cases that seem to happen more these days,” said a spokesman with Vi-CAP.
Also last month, the police began operating a mobile station, a bus with its interiors remodeled so that several police officers can work in the vehicle as if they were in an office at a police station.
The mobile station will accept most civil appeals, and the bus will patrol the residential districts or student areas that are far from the nearest stations, said the National Police Agency. The number “112,” the emergency telephone number for police, is printed in bold numbers on the bus’ exterior.
The National Police Agency has also promised a reward of up to 50 million won for tips from the public that lead to the apprehension of criminals.
“The police by themselves have their limits in solving a case, so we need your support,” the agency said.
by Lee Min-a