Man’s arrest highlights subway safety concerns

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Man’s arrest highlights subway safety concerns

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Authorities on Tuesday apprehended a middle-aged man who was alleged to have brandished a 10-inch knife and threatened passengers onboard a subway train in Seoul during morning rush hour.

The suspect, determined later to be a 51-year-old homeless man, was caught more than an hour after the episode, in which he brandished a knife onboard a train on subway line No. 1 around 8:20 a.m., before exiting at Jonggak Station.

No injuries were reported, though the incident highlighted a barrage of loopholes present in subway security systems in the capital, with a population density almost twice that of New York City and where more than 7 million people on average use the trains daily.

Last year, police recorded 3,040 crimes at local subway stations, up 58 percent from the 1,920 cases in 2013.

The most apparent oversight, however, is the lack of security resources and personnel.

Seoul Metro, which operates 242 subway stations on Seoul’s lines No. 1 through 4, currently sets aside 85 personnel to monitor security, working in teams of two or three with police officers during patrol.

Seoul police dispatches 152 officers for that role, a number that many public safety experts consider too small for Seoul’s 357 subway stations.

“We’re planning to recruit 27 more people for the task in April,” a source from Seoul Metro said. “But realistically, it’s hard to keep all the stations and subways in check under the current circumstances.”

Only 18.2 percent of all the subways on line Nos. 1 through 4 are equipped with CCTV cameras, a reality that limits and potentially hampers police efforts to track down suspects.

And according to police, the trains running on line Nos. 5 through 7 don’t have any cameras installed.

“We try to install CCTVs on newly built subways, but with a limited budget, the plan is restricted,” the source from Seoul Metro said.

On Tuesday, the police said that the suspect disembarked at Jonggak after exhibiting one of two knives he kept in his pocket.

The man, who authorities identified as 180 centimeters tall (5 feet, 9 inches) and robust, was arrested near the scene some 85 minutes later at 9:45 a.m.

During that time, CCTV footage procured from the Seoul subway revealed that the man took at least two rides on line No. 1 and made stops at three stations along the way before returning to Seoul Station.

After referencing CCTV footage and witness accounts, police caught the suspect there mingling amid a crowd of homeless people.

Police said it would request a detention warrant for the suspect on charges of special intimidation, which carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison or a fine of 10 million won ($8,312).

Further investigation revealed that the man has lived on the streets over the past 20 years, recently settling in makeshift shelters near Seoul Station. Police said the man claimed that he had lost contact with his family about three decades ago.

According to authorities, the suspect said he was “annoyed” with the crowd of passengers on the train and thought the weapon would simply “scare them away.”

They believe he had no intention to harm anyone.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, CHO HAN-DAE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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