Murder, abuse of parents rising in South Korea
Experts say people now have a heightened sense of individualism and a different attitude towards filial duty
By Lee Kyung-min
Korea is known for its culture long dominated by Confucianism, which prioritises filial duty and respecting the elderly over other social values. Koreans are taught to uphold the value of “hyo,” a Chinese character for “fulfilling filial duty,” a major source of dispute, especially among couples over supporting their parents as they grow old and become sick and financially needy. Recent data raises a question about whether Koreans are still bound by such a principle in the way they used to be.
According to data from the National Police Agency (NPA), an increasing number of cases has been reported over the past five years involving the murder or abuse of parents and grandparents, or those of the offender’s spouses. The NPA keeps separate data for murder, physical and verbal assault, intimidation and confinement for these people.
A total of 1,962 cases were reported last year, more than double the 956 in 2012. The number has been rising steadily from 1,092 in 2013 to 1,146 in 2014, 1,853 in 2015 and 2,180 in 2016. Last year’s data showed, 1,746 cases, or 88 per cent of the total, were assault, 424 of which involved serious bodily harm; followed by 195 cases of intimidation including indications of possible intention to cause bodily or other harm; and 21 of confinement.
Two hundred and sixty-six cases were of murder or suspected murder were reported over the past five years. Around 50 cases a year are reported, 49 in 2013, 60 in 2014, 55 in 2015, 55 in 2016 and 47 last year.
Harsher punishment for failing to be ‘good’ children?
Murderers are subject to at least five years in prison; but the minimum is raised to seven when the victims are the perpetrator’s parents or grandparents, or those of their spouse. The slightly harsher sentence is significantly more lenient compared to before 1995, when the criminal law was revised to reduce prison terms for such offences. Up until then, the general punishment was either the death penalty or life in prison.
The value put on maintaining such a “moral” norm has been upheld by the Constitutional Court. In 2013, in a 7-2 ruling, it said imposing a harsher sentence on those who killed their parents was constitutional as the offence deserved a harsher punishment in a country where the law should protect traditional values.
“Due to the depraved nature of the crime, those who kill their parents deserve social and moral condemnation much greater than those who kill any other individual,” the court said. The petition was filed in 2011 by a man surnamed Sohn, whose case was under review at the Supreme Court after lower courts convicted him of killing his father who beat his mother in front of him. A district court had sentenced him to 10 years in prison which an appellate court reduced to seven.
Lack of civics education breeds violence
Experts say the increase in crimes is due to a heightened sense of “individualism,” further triggered by unresolved anger and frustration over an extended period in early childhood. “The sense of being oppressed due to social and moral norms — or simply because they were too weak to stand up for themselves — could erupt in a violent manner due to the long-pent-up anger that remains unaddressed and unresolved,” said a sociology professor at a Seoul-based university.
The recent change in attitude among young people also contributes to less emphasis on family values. “Under the current education system in Korea, young Koreans are driven to get into a good university. The lack of civics education is attributable to young people having a decreased sense of morality,” the professor said.