Seoul subway murder sparks fury over South Korea’s stalking laws

Outside the women’s restroom at a subway station in the South Korean capital is a plaque that reads: “Women Friendly Seoul.”

The words, meant to assure women of their safety, have become tragically ironic. Last week, inside the restroom, a young woman who worked at the station was brutally murdered. The man suspected of killing her had been stalking her for years.

The wall underneath the plaque has since become a shrine of messages left as notes, with women and men of all ages coming to express their fury, fear, and sorrow.

“I want to be alive at the end of my workday,” reads one. “Is it too much to ask, to be safe to reject people I don’t like?” reads another.

The mother of a teenage girl cries as she scans the messages. “Where have we gone so wrong?” she asks, now questioning whether to allow her daughter to travel to school alone.

Shocking murder
The details of this murder have shocked the country. The 28-year-old had been working her usual evening shift at the subway station, unaware she was being watched.

Her alleged attacker, 31-year-old Jeon Joo-hwan, waited for over an hour outside the toilets, wearing gloves and a disposable shower cap, before following her inside and stabbing her to death.

It was the day before he was due to be sentenced for stalking her.

People have left Post-it note messages at the murder scene expressing their anger and fear
Image caption,
People have left Post-it note messages at the murder scene expressing their anger and fear
The harassment started in 2019, a year after the pair began working together. Jeon called his colleague more than 300 times begging her to date him, threatening to harm her if she refused.

When she reported him last October, he was fired from his job and arrested. But despite a police investigation and a request to the courts for him to be detained, he was never imprisoned or given a restraining order.

The victim was placed under police protection for a month, until they concluded there was nothing significant to report. Jeon then continued to threaten and stalk.

Since their daughter’s death, her parents and two younger sisters have barely left the funeral home, where her body still lies, surrounded by flowers from remorseful politicians.

The family are devastated, not only by their loss, but because she never told them what she was going through. So traumatised is her mother, she struggles to speak. She has decided to protect her daughter’s identity.

The victim’s uncle looks at flowers sent to the funeral home where his niece’s body lies
Image caption,
The victims’ uncle looks at flowers sent to the funeral home where his niece’s body lies
“We never worried about her,” her uncle tells me. “She was so smart and independent”. With pride he recalls how she was top of her class, winning herself a scholarship to university in Seoul.

As the oldest of three girls, she looked out for her sisters. These past years she had showed no sign of suffering, he says, suggesting this was because she had not wanted to burden them.

The only person she confided in was her lawyer, who she last messaged on the morning of her murder, the day before her stalker’s sentencing. “We are almost there”, she wrote.

Her family are now watching, along with the rest of the country, the horrifying details of her case unfold. They have exposed weaknesses in South Korea’s stalking laws and led to accusations the country does not treat violence against women seriously enough.