Travel Nightmares : Getting Arrested in South Korea
In september of 2012 I was arrested in Korea. Like many others gone before, I became just another English teacher in South Korea to be unjustly discriminated against by those in charge of justice in the country.
I’ve put off writing this for a long time now. Almost a year in fact. There are two reasons for this. The first being that at the time of the event I was still in Korea and I hoped to remain there for the next few months. Writing something that heavily criticised the legal system of the country may have had repercussions. The second reason was that thinking about the situation sickened me to the stomach.
It all began on a wednesday evening in september. Jessica and I had been for a cheap dinner where we ate chicken wings and supped a couple of beers casually, enjoying the summer feel of the evening. The air was warm and the breeze was refreshing. We chatted and hung out for about an hour before we headed towards the subway.
Heading down the escalators we were already late. We had 4-5 minutes to make it down one very long escalator and a couple of staircases. If we didn’t move quickly we would be waiting for 30 minutes until the final subway of the day. We should of set off earlier but we didn’t.
As we moved down the escalator one Korean man refused to let us pass. He was standing with a young boy aged perhaps 16. The man was smiling and when we said “Excuse me”(in Korean) he turned to look at us before responding bluntly with a “No” in English. We asked again as if he hadn’t heard. This time the response was much more aggressive.
“Listen you son of bitch, can you read?”
“What are you talking about?” I replied
“The sign says no running on the stairs” he spat
“I’m not running…look, just let us past please we are trying to get to the subway”
“You son of bitch, fuck you, can you read fucking Korean?!”
This argument continued for a few minutes before we reached the bottom of the escalators. Jessica pulled me away from what was turning into a very volatile situation. We walked away as he continued to shout at us. We, at this point realised this guy had a screw loose. Either that or he was trying to rile us up in order to get a reaction and then a pay out (which happens a lot in Korea). More on that later on though…
We walked away from the man to the end of the subway line and waited for the next subway. We were still on track for the subway somehow. We joked how that guy was a mentalist. We spoke too soon. He came around the corner with the other boy trailing slowly and shyly behind. The man, aged 40ish walked straight up to me and began to swear at us.
“You fucking son of bitch, you are lucky”
“Oh man… go away…I don’t want to speak to you”
“You are fucking lucky, if your girlfriend not here, I fucking kill you!”
At this point I was very close to smacking him straight through his yellow smoke stained teeth.
“Go away” Jessica screamed at him
He laughed and continued to get in my face
“Fuck you!, I fucking kill you” he spat in my face
“Go on then, do something you silly little man” I rasped
The subway couldn’t have arrived any sooner. I stepped on as soon as the doors opened and turned around. The man stepped in front of Jessica laughing. She pushed him away and screamed “What’s your problem?!”
He rushed towards her with his right hand raised! He had rage reddening his eyes as he began to move. Before he could hit Jessica in the back of the head, I stepped in. I moved Jess quickly out of the way and with my left fist I struck him hard straight across his jaw.
He wheeled backwards and the spit that had built (from him foaming up) burst from his mouth like a mini volcano. It was a cracking punch I thought. A real haymaker of sorts.
He got up and began to scream. He boarded the subway as the doors were closing. People jumped up from their seats as he ran towards me, fists flailing creating a scene. I deflected his punches and held his arms determined not to beat him up on a subway, fully aware of the repercussions. Another man on the subway came across to help calm the situation. The angry Korean man was held on the subway as we disembarked. We were going to wait for another subway.
Instead of holding him on the subway however he was let off. The subway took off as he exited. Once again he ran towards us. Jessica shouted for someone to come and help but other Koreans lowered their eyes and shuffled away. Again, I refused to hit him and held his arms.
Eventually one man came across to help. As he approached however, something changed in the demeanour of the man who had been following us.
He reached toward his jaw and held it, he flinched around and looked all of a sudden like a feeble man. He spoke in Korean to the man who had come to help us. The man asked us “Why did you hit him?”
If his body actions weren’t enough of a giveaway, we now knew he was playing the victim.
Jessica said to me that he looked as though he had bitten the inside of his mouth. Perhaps he did, perhaps not, but either way, there was blood dripping down his chin.
He took out his phone as a smile began to break on his face “Watch this, I call police….” He winced and pressed his cheekbone with a tissue. We decided we would wait and stick it to this guy. He’d been following us, abusing us and fully deserved the punch. Furthermore he was trying to get something it seemed. If this was a democracy, we would be heard fairly and this guy would get whats coming to him. He had followed, aggravated, physically threatened and was now verbally abusing us, we were the victims.
Looking back we should of taken this as our cue to leave … fast.
The police showed up and the ‘injured’ man jumped in shouting fast in Korean and pointing at us. Our story was not going to be heard first.
The policeman addressed me like a piece of dirt on his shoe, curling his upper lip
“Yes..” I began.
We headed towards the exit of the subway station annoyed that we were not going to tell our story here. Amazingly, the police did not want to speak with the 16 year old boy who saw everything! He was told to go home!
Yep, they told the only other witness present to go home with no further questioning even though we stressed how important it was he stay.
Exiting the subway station we were rushed into the back of a police car. Strangely enough we sat three in the back. Me, Jessica and the man I’d just hit.
We sat in the police station and both wrote out our stories at opposite sides of the room. After about an hour to an hour and a half I was handed a piece of card in English. It read ‘You are under arrest..You do not have to say anything’ etc Then I was handed a piece of paper to sign to acknowledge I understood what was happening.
“Why am I under arrest?! I am the victim here, not him!!” I said.
“No English” he responded before barking ‘sign!’
Reality began to set in. I was being arrested in South Korea. I was going to be made out to be a criminal.
Some time within the next hour we were moved to another police station via another backseat cramped journey with the man. We entered the criminal investigations unit at Yeoido police station. The man who was now clearly the victim gave his statement as he sat with a tissue against his jaw, still wincing/pretending with every word.
He sipped coffee and joked with the investigators before he was waved off by the policemen.
We on the other hand had to wait until a translator arrived. This took another hour and a half. The time was 2am before someone arrived to translate for us.
We gave our story and figured out he had a number of discrepancies on his statement.
The first was that he said I had hit him on the left side of his face. This was impossible. I am left handed and he was facing me.
The second was that he claimed we had been following him around the subway station before attacking him. Again, clearly a lie.
Both things could be checked on CCTV so we thought nothing more of it.
All of this was acknowledged by the police. We felt like something was going to get sorted. Before we left, the policeman handed us an ice cream each and we ate it with him as our spirits were lifted. He told us they would check the CCTV and everything would be fine.
“Don’t worry” he smiled at us before we headed home at around 4am.
The next day I had to inform my school including the Head-teacher and it wasn’t until a week later that the investigator got back in touch.
The investigator had no good news. He basically told us to settle outside of court and the man who is now a victim wants 5,000,000 Korean won. That is about £3,000 or $4,500. Our initial predictions were confirmed. The man wanted a payout and had probably been seeking foreigners to take advantage of in that subway station that very night. For him it was the jackpot.
There was not a chance in hell I was handing over £3,000 to this guy. The police had not looked into CCTV or paid any attention to the statement we had given! They didn’t care what happened and would rather believe it was another case of the brutal foreigner punches the innocent Korean.
The truth however was that, they were failing to protect an innocent person focussing more on protecting someone from their own race and country.
That evening I got some legal advice and the lawyer informed me that I had a good standing point. There were lies in the mans statement and if it goes to court, even though the judge will side with the Korean man because of his race, it will probably take over a year and by that time I’ll be home in the UK.
Wait…he will be sided with just because he is Korean?! This is ridiculous. Can you imagine in a modern democratic country a mans legal case is decided purely and solely because of his race.
Additionally, the lawyer will cost $1,500.
I spoke with friends who all seemed to have varied opinions on what I should do. Either way, it was a lose-lose situation. The last thing I wanted to do was hand out any money to anyone, especially for a situation in which I was not guilty.
Over the next two weeks my co-teacher helped me out enormously and spoke with the man, haggling over money. This guy told her he had doctor bills to pay due to damages in his mouth as well as lawyer fees. All lies. He was trying to take us to the cleaners.
My co-teacher told me that if I chose the legal option and hired a lawyer then there is a chance my school will fire me. Any legal proceedings regarding the native English teacher will mean a breach of contract and thus they will let me go. My visa would be cancelled for getting arrested in South Korea and I would have to leave the country.
A sticky situation unravelled and over the duration of the month there was a lot of stress placed on both myself and Jessica.
The conclusion of being arrested in South Korea
We ended up paying the man 2,000,000 won, (£1,100, $1700). The other situation was drag it out for a year, pay a lawyer and hope it doesn’t result in a firing from the school (which it probably would) I literally had no leg to stand on.
Yet..still it was not over!
We had to meet him again and personally hand over the money at the station. The investigators were joking around and everyone seemed happy as they all signed papers. Everyone except me that is, the person who felt heavily victimised by a terrible system that seemed to be governed by under the table deals.
The policeman asked “what would happen in your country?”
“Well…this certainly wouldn’t be happening right now.” I responded
The investigator told me afterwards that this is what happens and it’s the best way to handle such situations. I was fuming.
A quick google search for English teachers in Korea being arrested will return a ton of similar stories. One popular scam involves taxi drivers. They take you home (usually after you’ve been drinking) but charge you double. Then when you complain, they try to physically fight you before taking you to the police station and requesting large payouts for damages inflicted on them and their car (even if there are none). Within the past year I have at least three friends this has happened to.
Other stories where the foreigner is the victim but is treated as the offender are very common. The stories differ but are always resolved in the same way. Under the table payouts (the foreigner paying). There are people taking advantage of this because they know how shallow, ethnocentric and spineless the Korean system, police and prosecutors really are in this country.
Where the rest of the country continues to develop and propel itself forward, the legal system has not.
Furthermore, it puts every single foreigner in Korea in danger if something were to happen. (If it involves a Korean person.)
This entire event put a huge dark cloud over the final few months in Korea and when I left the country I did so with a very bitter taste in my mouth.
Korea times recently published an article discussing racism in Korea. You can read the full thing here
What do you think? Any stories you have heard or thoughts on the matter? Please like and share the story.
The more people that read, the more that are likely to do something about it!
Finally, thanks for reading!