[Viewpoint] Accountability starts with society

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[Viewpoint] Accountability starts with society

Yet another issue has riled up Korean society over the past week.

This time it involves Kim Kil-tae, the suspect in the abduction and murder of a middle school girl in Busan. Nobody, it seems, would bat an eye if Kim was sentenced to death right this instant. This is the general feeling among the public.

However, at the end of a nighttime debate on KBS last Saturday, one viewer proposed that we look at sexual assault from a different perspective. The theme of debate that night was “Child sexual assault: is there even a solution?” During the debate, some participants suggested that the country is approaching the issue in the wrong way.

“I was a victim [of sexual assault] as a child,” a woman from Masan said in a calm voice over the phone during the show. “It was very painful. However, I do not think enforcing laws dealing with the punishment of these culprits is a fundamental solution. Our society needs to look at this in a new light, and I think this is how we can sublimate the pain [of victims].” Instead of using words like “anger” and “punishment,” she presented solutions that involved the concepts of “consideration” and taking an “interest” in the offenders.

Kim was abandoned at the age of two. His adopted parents, who had three daughters, then raised him, but it was difficult for them to properly educate him, as they were poor. Kim was reportedly a cheerful child, but he began to stray in high school after finding out that he was abandoned.

Nobody, it seems, recognized or filled his sense of emptiness. He ended up quitting school. He had no friends, and it appeared that society wanted nothing to do with him. His sexual urges started to appear in a violent way at this point. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud said that people who have failed to establish internal sociocultural rules that restrain sexual desires ultimately have difficulty rejecting violent sexual crimes.

Keeping that in mind, it can be argued that our society, criminal justice system and attitudes toward those with sexual problems were accomplices or accessories to the Kim case. Kim had been jailed eight times, starting with simple assault in 1996 when he was 19 years old.

His progressively atrocious criminal record should have led to focused treatment. However, Korean law did not give him an opportunity to treat his distorted sexual awareness during the 10-plus years he spent in prison. If Kim had received proper treatment to change his mistrust and denial of the world into faith and hope, there is a high chance that he would not have abducted and murdered the schoolgirl.

According to the Ministry of Justice, around 8,800 suspects were arrested for sexual assault in 2008. Only 28 of the 8,800 are currently receiving treatment. This is the attitude of the Korean government toward sexual offenders, who, statistics show, have a high probability of committing the same crime again.

During the ongoing police investigation into the crime, Kim asked angrily, “What has this society done for me?” It was an attack on our society as a whole, and most citizens reacted by calling him nuts. The public reaction was tied to the fact that he blamed others for his own wrongdoings.

But aren’t we living in an age where everything is all about being No. 1? With no room for even the second-best to stand, navigating through life is even more difficult for someone at the bottom, like Kim. This is probably why the letter he wrote to his step-parents when he got out of prison two years ago sounded so desperate. “This time, I will get a job, make money and fulfill my filial duty, no matter what,” he wrote.

However, our society couldn’t even give this man a shred of hope. British sociologist Anthony Giddens said in his book “Social Theory and Modern Sociology” that the crime rate of a country is proportionate to the number of individuals who feel “social exclusion.” If Kim was a socially excluded individual, we are all more than a little responsible for failing to open our hearts to him before this happened.

Somebody who referred to himself as “a person largely interested in human rights” called an attorney in Busan a few days ago and offered the attorney millions of won to defend Kim. He did not reveal his identity.

Perhaps the person was trying to atone for his sliver of the share of responsibility we all have in the death of a middle school girl.

*The writer is the Hong Kong correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Choi Hyung-kyu
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