Monday, March 28, 2011

Walls with Barbed Wire?

Dear Korean,

What's with all the barbed wire in Seoul? I hear nothing but positive comments on the safety and low crime rate in Korea, so I wonder why are the fences and walls surrounding apartments, 'villas' and homes are topped with barbed wire?

S. Eron

Probably the most accurate answer is -- why not? While Korea does have relatively low crime rate and good public safety, it is far from being totally free from crime. Petty thieves scaling the wall is not unheard of, so it is not a bad idea to have barbed wire on your wall.

If one really strained to give a "cultural" answer, one plausible theory would be that not long ago, Korea was under military dictatorship, which often implanted militaristic culture to Korea's everyday life. That probably allowed Koreans to tune out the presence of barbed wire and consider it to be a normal part of the scenery. But this is just a theory that the Korean made up just now -- take it for what it is.

One related note is -- in Seoul, there are many legitimate and highly important places that could be a potential military target. Aside from the obvious ones like the presidential residence, there are a number of safe houses used by Korea's intelligence agencies that hold important people. (For example, Hwang Jang-Yeop, the creator of North Korea's juche philosophy who defected to South Korea, lived in such a safe house until he passed away recently.) Also, there are legitimate concerns that North Korea would attempt to infiltrate Seoul and kill the president and/or commit terrorism, as it happened in 1968. So a lot of places in Seoul are areas of legitimate military interest, which might be protected with barbed wire.

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


  1. The whole "Korea is completely safe" thing is a myth. There is tons of crime in Korea but since most is handled outside of the courts (bribes paid to the victim)the crime rate looks lower than it really is. Then there is also the complete lack of trust in the police to do their jobs.

    I have had several Korean friends tell that they were sexually assaulted but did nothing about it due to loss of face and no expectations that the police would even try to help.

    I am not saying Korea is as dangerous as the US or Britain, but that most of its crimes go unreported.

  2. Scott,

    The Korean will discuss this in more detail later, but one of the most pernicious lies about Korean legal system is the so-called "bribes" and "blood money," which actually is no more than a settlement payment for a civil suit, commonly in use everywhere in the world in some form or another.

  3. I'd love to hear your take on that - especially considering all I know about them is anecdotal at best.

    Re: barbed wire - it's cheap, effective, and very much a 'set it and forget it' thing. Why bother with a dog that'll wake up the neighborhood or an alarm system to protect that jar of kimchi in the backyard?

    (Psst...BTW, that post that got pulled.. hilarious...)

  4. When I was in Mexico, more years ago than I care to count, I saw a lot of walls topped with broken colored glass. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the colored glass that sparkles in the sun beats barbed wire any day. It's far more decorative. Someone once told me that using glass wasn't legal in Canada and the US for liability reasons. I have no idea if that's actually true or not. Doesn't make sense to me as barbed wire is pretty dangerous, too. Personally, if I had to pick one or the other for neighborhood uses, it would be glass.

  5. "(Psst...BTW, that post that got pulled.. hilarious...)"

    I would like to know more about this post that got pulled kekeke

  6. The answer is simple: the Korean constitution has no equivelent of the American Second Amendment.

    There's little street crime in Korea, but home invasions, for burglery and rape, are common. My wife and many of my students have told me stories of burglers breaking into their houses when they were kids.

    In America, if you break into someone's house, you could get shot and killed and it would be justifiable homicide. In Korea, if some guy breaks into my house and rapes my wife, and I hit him over the head with a baseball bat, I'm liable for his injuries.

  7. TWC

    In Korea, if some guy breaks into my house and rapes my wife, and I hit him over the head with a baseball bat, I'm liable for his injuries.

    The Korean is respectful of your work, but this is just false.

  8. The false implication that being allowed to have guns makes you safer is complete bunk. There is no evidence whatsoever that proves this claim and in fact there is plenty statistics that prove otherwise.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Well, Right of Self-Defense is stipulated in Korean law (I am not sure if it is in the constitution though... should have concentrated more during Social Studies!) but it is of course much more restricted and has much less power in Korean legal system than in the American one. So, if the intruder you've hit just passed out and ended up with a minor head bump, then you might not be liable. But if he died, then you are probably held legally responsible in some way.

    Then again, I don't think this is one of the numerous Korean peculiarities, just as strict gun control is not a peculiar thing about Korea.

    (btw, I'm sorry about keep deleting comments. I'm really not used to Blogger.)

  11. The barbed wire is there to prevent burglaries and home invasions. A person who enters a home to steal is not a petty thief. While living in Seoul, I knew many foreigners and Koreans whose apartments and homes had been broken into, including neighbors in buildings where I lived. One neighbor was slashed in the face with a knife when she stumbled upon a thief while entering her apartment. Every single apartment I lived in, like most others in Seoul and other large cities, had bars on the windows and balconies.

    At the university where I worked, all the mopeds and motorcycles chained outside the foreign faculty and graduate student housing got stolen twice in the three years I lived in the building. The gates are locked at 10 PM, and guards must open them to allow vehicles to pass in and out of the university. A large truck would have been needed to remove all of the bikes, suggesting that the guards let the truck in and out sometime during the night, probably after payment of a bribe. Foreign teachers and Korean grad students complained to no avail.

    My faculty office was also broken into and my wallet stolen.

    In terms of violent crime, Seoul appears much safer than any US city, but the risk of property crime is probably comparable.

  12. US military bases abound in Korea, and at least in Seoul are near a lot of tourist-y places, such as Itaewon, the Korean War Memeorial Museum, and the National Museum of Korea. So, they are certainly all surrounded with barbed wire, and may be a lot of what your questioner sees.

  13. the closer you go to North Korea (around Paju, for example) the more barbed wire one sees: even the sides of the highway have barbed wire fences around there.

    While traveling in china, I saw a lot of walls that stuck shards of broken glass bottles, pointy-side up, in the top layer of concrete, on the tops of the fences. Not as big as barbed wire, shiny, and probably equally effective.

  14. The Korean,

    If I was incorrect about the blood money then I would love to hear about it (and it seems like you will address it in the near future). Calling something a "lie" because it may be incorrect is quite low though.
    If something is done outside the court so that criminal charges will be dropped, I consider that a bribe. What would you call it?

  15. Scott,

    The Korean did not intend to say you were being dishonest, but he can see how it can be interpreted that way; sorry about that. But the claim is a lie in a sense that not only is it incorrect, but also it is repeated by those who are intent on tarnishing Korea. (The Korean is sure you know the type.)

    As to why the settlement is not a "bribe", the post is actually coming in a few days. Stay tuned.

  16. Can't wait! While we are waiting here is an article about a man stopping a sexual molestation and a physical assault being sentenced to 6 months in prison. Why the long sentence? He didn't give money to the "victim".

  17. When the initial verdict of that case came down, the Korean was as flabbergasted as anyone. So he asked several Korean lawyers about the case -- and all of them were equally flabbergasted. They were certain that the result will change in the appeal, which is exactly what happened. Basically, even in the case in which a person is protecting another from a crime, the person should be using proportionate force. You are not allowed to pull out a knife and stab someone, even if you were trying to stop a pickpocket (as long as the pickpocket did not present a threat of death.)

    There, the bus driver was trying to stop a sexual assault, but the "sexual assault" there was basically an unwanted groping. But the bus driver punched the person in the face and broke the person's eyesocket. That is pretty a disproportionate response, so the KRW 100M restitution seems appropriate -- but not the 6 months in prison handed by the lower court.

    More relevant to the point we were discussing, the Korean would caution against drawing causality between paying money and the sentence. That's like saying, "Because the plea bargaining failed, the defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison." That statement is 100% correct in a strict sense -- if plea bargaining was successful, the sentence would have been lower. But ultimately, 15 years in prison came from the person's underlying crime, not because he failed to cooperate in plea bargaining.


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