Serial killings grip South Korea


SEOUL — Several feet below layers of carpeted grass near hole 8 at a public golf course about an hour away from Seoul lies the body of a 37-year-old woman. She was allegedly the fourth victim of a serial killer who raped or robbed six other women before strangling them to death.

All the victims' bodies have been recovered, except for the one beneath this golf course, which blanketed the burial site: Beneath the grass are the remains of a karaoke bar employee identified only as Kim.

The country has been swept into a state of horror after 38-year-old killer Kang Ho-sun confessed to slaughtering his victims, who ranged from university students to housewives.

But the overwhelming sense of fear comes not just from Kang's case. More broadly, it's rooted in the pattern of random murders of innocent civilians in the past few years. Kang is the third serial killer who has been arrested since 2004 in a country that is known for its relatively low crime rate.

Kang began the killings in 2006, choosing desolate areas in the southwestern Gyeonggi province for his crimes. He used pruning shears to clip off his victims’ nails to remove evidence that would trace back to him, and strangled most of the women with their own stockings. 

“I would like to publish a book about the crimes that I’ve committed and at least pass on the royalties to my children,” Kang was quoted as saying by investigators, a comment that only fueled anger toward the masseur-turned-killer. Kang was living with his two sons when the police arrested him.

He wasn't the first to show elaborate planning in his killing sprees.

Yoo Young-chul, who is commonly referred to as the “notorious of killers,” slaughtered 20 victims in less than one year before he was captured in 2004. His was the first serial killer case to hit South Korea in the new century, and it was so sensational that it was made into a film last year. 

Yoo, 38, was known to have studied anatomy before cutting his victims into more than a dozen pieces in his apartment room, and was said to have listened to classical music as his “work” took place.

Although these kinds of crimes are not entirely new to Korean society, the numbers are on the rise, according to Lee Soo-jung, a professor at Kyonggi University’ who specializes in criminal psychology.

“As we enter the 21st century, we’re seeing a trend of individualized crimes. One of the characteristics that crimes in the North American culture have is that the criminals are usually very isolated from the rest of world. That kind of trend is emerging in our society as well,” Lee said.

According to Lee, the Asian financial crisis, which hit South Korea in the late 1990s, brought about more than financial struggles and upheavals. The country was faced with a breakup of families, which led to a more individualized culture. This coupled with the widespread availability of violent and sensational material on the Internet is creating more potential for more heinous crimes, Lee said.

The belief in the cause of crimes also plays a role. Korea is a society in which people believe crimes take place not because of individuals' faults, but because of a lack of support for those in economically vulnerable positions. In other words, society itself shares some responsibility for crimes.

Which makes the serial killings difficult to understand. “Serial killings or serial rapes are not always carried out by poor people. This means there are now parts that cannot be covered with the conventional approach the law system had towards crime,” Lee added.

Kang’s case has resulted in the marketing of special self-defense products and services. GPS tracking services in mobile phones have increased sharply since the case began, and one handset manufacturer announced it will introduce an emergency alarm phone that can be heard from 5 meters away.

The market reaction reflects the sentiment on the streets. “If I see a suspicious person on the street these days, I just go around a different way,” said 24-year-old Jung Si-nae. The university student said most of her friends are more cautious these days.

“This kind of a case could never have happened in the old days,” said Cho Young-soon, 65. Cho said she is expecting grandchildren soon. “It’s become a world in which we can’t even let them out to play without worrying,” she added.

Other GlobalPost dispatches from South Korea:

Where children are "too expensive"

Coarse language, sarcasm, and an internet fall from grace in South Korea

South Koreans shrug at news from the north