Friday, November 23, 2007

As useful as a candle at noon

[update at bottom]

The police are, that is, when it comes to dealing with incidents involving foreigners and Koreans. Now, I'm sure that's not true all the time, of course, but there are enough examples out there to convince you that choosing the Korean side in an incident involving a Korean and a foreigner or simply ignoring a foreigner if they've been assaulted and the perpetrator has fled is not an uncommon occurrence.

Numerous stories, especially involving foreign women, appeared in the comments section of this Marmot post about a Misuda panelist who was assaulted in her apartment in 2005 (photos here) and who brought her (lack of) treatment by the hospitals and police to light on TV recently, though the media didn't bother to comment on this at first, as she relates in comments here (and below, #88) at the Marmot's.

Usinkorea covers many incidents involving USFK members and Koreans, such as two subway incidents in 1994 and 2002, as well as the indifference of the police after a group of Irish customers in a bar in Itaewon were beaten by bar staff. There's also the case of Ali Khan, who insists he is in prison for a murder he didn't commit, due in part to the fact that the police beat or scared off people who could have testified on his behalf, and in part to their ignoring a confession made by someone else after his imprisonment.

The most recent episode is the arrest of Michael, the Metropolitician, after he called the police to deal with a drunk who was following and harassing him and his companions. There are many other such stories related in the comments to that post, while his follow-up post relates other such stories from people he's known.

Several factors are worth noting, most obviously the xenphobic or racist perceptions of foreigners in which foreign men are 'stealing' or 'insulting' Korean women and foreign women are easy, perceptions helped along by the media and government*. A group of female friends were accosted in McDonalds by a drunk man who pointed at the three of them and motioned towards the door, saying "Come with me now," obviously thinking they were prostitutes. Another girl was followed home from work, tried to lose the man by running up the stairs, then realized she didn't want him to know where she lived and tried to leave, only finding sanctuary in a bakery where she called her boyfriend in tears. Another Korean-American woman was attacked in the elevator of her building, but she fought off the man and he ran away. When she told the security guard and pointed at the man running away, he said it would take too long for him to put his shoes on.

Another factor is the way in which conflicts are resolved. Allow me again to quote what anthropologist Linda Louis wrote in Laying Claim to the Memory of May:
As a social process, the Korean cultural scenario for conflict resolution involves the public expression of grievances by both sides, as a means of informing the neighbors, of shaping local consensus, and of mustering popular support for each side of the argument.

It is above all else also a process that relies heavily on the involvement of a third, mediating party for a sucessful outcome. In fact, it is through the public airing of the dispute that the antagonists solicit the intervention of others. Intense verbal aggression and the public expression of grievances serve not as a prelude to physical violence, but function to mobilize third party intervention, to prevent just such an escalation in the dispute.
Many foreigners are never going to get a fair hearing in such situations, because they can't speak Korean well, on top of being foreigners. I think it does a good job of explaining how "concerned citizens" often appear to help Koreans who get into an altercation with a foreigner.

Another thing common to many descriptions is how people attack foreigners and no one does anything. This is not just confined to altercations with foreigners, but occurs often between Koreans (which may reveal a breakdown in "third party intervention", perhaps due to urban settings where people don't know each other, unlike in the villages where this social practice originated). I've heard several stories like this. In one, a friend was on the subway and saw a drunk man harassing a high school girl. When no one intervened, he chose to, and made the man go away. When, in a conversation with another man, he said that he was a student, the man asked him, "Why did you speak to your elder (the drunk) that way?" Another friend saw a drunk man beating a woman in a girly bar district while a small group of bystanders watched. He was the only one who intervened. When the fight ended and people left, a man ran in and out of a convenience store and gave him some yogurt and said, "Thankyou for doing that." To which my friend thought, "Why didn't you do something?" The friends in both cases were foreigners.

And then there's the belief that the police will almost never take the word of a foreigner over that of a Korean. So when you mix the likelihood of people coming to the aid of a Korean who's in a confrontation with a foreigner, the likelihood of everyone ignoring a situation when a foreigner (or another Korean) is being assaulted by a Korean, and the fact that most foreigners don't speak the language well and aren't considered reliable witnesses by the police, the advice a police officer gave Michael sounds pretty good:

"You should have just gone home. You shouldn't have called us. Next time, just leave."

(Over at eclexys, Gord comments on "the fact that essentially, the foreigner is supposed to run and hide in his home whenever some jerk feels like harassing someone.")

* The Government has nothing but good things to say about foreigners and does everything in its power to combat stereotypes propagated by the media, of course - just look at the language in a release about new E2 regulations from the Ministry of Justice titled "No More Illegal Native English Teachers":
The Korean Government will prevent illegal activities by verifying requirements of native English teacher and tighten their non-immigrant status [...] [and will] eradicate illegal activities of native English teachers who are causing social problems such as ineligible lectures, taking drugs and sex crimes. English teachers, who disturb social order during their staying in Korea such as illegal teaching, taking drugs and sex crimes, will be banned from entering South Korea.[...] [They will] prevent illegal English teaching activities and the taking of drugs and sexual harassment of English teachers, [...] teachers who disrupt the social order by taking drugs, committing sexual harassment and alcohol intoxication [because we all know how alcohol disrupts the social order here].

It is expected the uneasiness of citizens incurred from ineligible English teachers will be mitigated [...] thanks to this measure on the native English teachers by the Ministry of Justice.
I'm sure the "uneasiness of citizens" towards foreigners in general has come from more than just the actions of some bad apples. Such notices as the one above, or especially articles like this one are more likely culprits:
The person who was searched for around the world for molesting children taught children in a Korean school, and now a native speaker teacher at a public elementary school says other nations are better than Korea. Korea, working hard to learn English, is in a sad state.
Add the 'news' media and police attitudes to that 'sad state', NoCut News.


I just read this post over at Smee in Jeollanam-do and found something that stood out in the light of having just written the above post. He mentions the truth commission that last year cleared 83 of 148 Koreans found to be war criminals by the Allied war crimes tribunals at the end of World War II, and went on to quote Oranckay's reaction to it:
What annoys me is that one hears sympathy for men who would be called collaborators if they had been working in prisons that held fellow Koreans during colonial rule. Their prisoners were (largely) white, however, so they are afforded as much understanding as possible. And they get to be called “victims.”

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