Friday, August 14, 2009

Crime and Punishment in Korea

Dear Korean,

I hear that the crime rate is rising in South Korea, despite the good economy. Do you have any theories about the rising crime rate in South Korea?


Dear Anonymouse,

Is the crime rate rising in Korea? To see if that is true, there is no better place to look than the website of the National Police Agency in Korea, which provides this chart that lists the statistics for the five major crimes (murder, robbery, rape, burglary, assault):

But with this chart alone, it is a little difficult to see the overall trend. Therefore, following is a graph created by the Korean:

The graph is made to show the overall increase and decrease of each crime category. The Korean used the number of reported crimes rather than the number of arrested crimes, for obvious reasons. The 2001 values are held at 100, and the lines show the year-to-year percentage variations.

From this graph, one can observe several things:

First, in the short term, the number of overall crimes did increase from 2004 through 2008. But counting from 2001 through 2008, the number of crimes are more or less stable, as a regression line drawn in the middle through the "Total" line would be nearly flat.

Second, number of burglary mostly drove the total number of crimes. Burglary and assault make up the most number of crimes -- put together, they make up 97 percent of all reported five major crimes. Since the number of assaults stayed more or less stable, increase in burglary (especially between 2006-2008) drove the number of total crimes.

Why did burglary increase in 2007 and 2008? That seems to be simple enough to explain: 2007 is when the economy started cratering. Because Korean economy is extremely export-dependent, any slowdown in spending in a major market (the United States in this case) has a big impact in Korean economy. The worries over subprime mortgage was percolating in the U.S. by 2007, which mean Korea was already facing a downturn in economy. It seems reasonable to think that bad economy caused more thievery. On a related note, it is interesting that robbery decreased all the way until 2007, then picked up in 2008. It could be a sign that poverty-driven criminals (as opposed to those who commit crimes for other motives) are getting more desperate.

Third, what really jumps out from the graph is the large increase in rape cases -- nearly 50 percent increase since 2001. Why is this happening? The Korean is no criminologist, but based on his observation of crimes reported in newspapers, he has two hypotheses. First, the Korean society is becoming more sexually charged, with children getting exposed to sex at younger and younger ages, particularly over the Internet. But the Korean society's taboo against discussing sex lingers on, depriving Korean children and teens from getting adequate sex education to match the more sexualized atmosphere in which they live. This hypothesis is borne out by the fact that more reported cases of sexual assaults are committed by teens.

Also, social stigma against victims of sexual assault has been steadily decreasing in Korea. At the same time, as Korean women become more independent and self-assured, there is certainly more awareness among Korean women as to what is sexual assault and what is just something that happens at a party that you are not supposed to talk about. Therefore, more victims of sexual assault are willing to report the crime, leading to the increase in the number of reported cases. But again, these are just hypotheses.

Just for fun, how do U.S. and Korea compare? According to Wikipedia, U.S. has 5.8 homicides per 100,000 people, similar to such illustrous nations as Georgia, Albania and Ethiopia. Korea has 2.18 homicides per 100,000 people, similar to Czech Republic, Finland and United Kingdom.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Wow! us Americans live in a hellhole compared to Korea. XD

  2. That chart would have been more informative if it also showed per-capita rates, not just absolute counts.

    Korea is much safer to live in than the U.S. A man can walk around pretty much anywhere in Seoul at 3 AM without feeling scared, whereas in major U.S cities, there are places I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole even during the day and even if I were armed with an AK-47.

    It's a great relief that civilian use of guns is banned in Korea. Otherwise there would be mayhem.

  3. Also, the police have recently been cracking down on more sex-related crimes, so it's not a matter of increasing crimes, but more an increase in people getting caught.

  4. I don't think it's the sex crimes per say that are increasing...I think it's more people coming out about them. In the past it was considered more taboo to report sex crimes because of police have more people reporting crimes...therefore catching more people.

  5. 성매매특별법...
    hmm. A special law banning prostitution was passed in 2004.

    In Korea, prostitution had been always illegal; however, police did not actively cracked it down before 2000. Punishment for prostitution was enhanced since 2000 with the famous figure Kim Gangja, a police staion chief who almost shut down a red-light district in Seoul.

    By the time when that law was passed in 2004, almost all red-light districts were gone.

    Prostition nevertheless remains in other various covert ways. I remember reading a news about police busting a prostituion office? in Seoul. The police searched all the records of those who went through that place. It turned out that so many many many men went throught there, and police was in trouble because punishing all of them will paralyze their daily duty.

  6. Well I think if Korean police actually enforced laws the crime rate would be much higher here, I'm not sure what they do, with a lack of major crimes one would think they should crack down on small infractions of the law, this is not the case. Prostitution illegal, haha, I live between many a places of ill-repute and a decent sized police station.

    With that being said, Korea is much safer country than the USA(when it comes to street crime), my neighborhood here in Incheon is sleazy but if it were a similar place in a large American city it would be sleazy and super dangerous.

    Though I believe people need to factor in how bad the drivers are here. People always say how safe it is in Korea but the country has highest rate of pedestrians being ran over and killed in the OECD I believe. It makes no difference if you were killed by a knife wielding crackhead or a bus driver who was driving way too fast, you are dead either way. If anything being killed by a car is almost worse because it is much more fixable problem, just enforce traffic laws.

    Crimes of passion or crimes caused due to wealth inequality take a lot more time to deal with.

  7. that's what i thought too. i think there was something like that posited by a chosun ilbo article a while ago.


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