December 20, 2022
SEOUL – At the bottom of a winding path in the quiet neighborhood of Wa-dong, Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, resides one of South Korea’s most infamous child sex offenders in a nondescript apartment.
In 2008, a middle-aged man called Cho Doo-soon sexually attacked and maimed a then-eight-year-old girl in a church restroom. The inhumane assault resulted in unspeakable injuries to the victim, which she still suffers from according to a recent statement by her father. This also led to a flurry of proposed law revisions seeking to toughen punishment on child sex offenders, although none have been passed as of 2022.
Two years ago, tension sizzled under the surface of the quiet neighborhood when it was first announced that an infamous child sex offender would move in.
“I can’t help but be worried. It’s not like we (residents) are holding protests or anything, but I do wish that he (Cho) would move,” said a mother of two elementary school students who wished to remain anonymous.
Such a protest actually did occur in the process of Cho’s unsuccessful attempt to move to nearby Seonbu-dong, when fierce opposition by residents led to the landlord’s cancellation of Cho’s rental contract.
Similar tension can be found in the city of Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, where residents want to oust serial rapist Park Byung-hwa. The series of incidents has brought forth a question: Should pedophiles and convicted sex offenders be not allowed to live near schools, or in areas inhabited by children? Where should they live?
A child sex offender’s neighborhood
Across the street from Cho’s home was a special Ansan police patrol center.
It was set up after his release from prison in December 2020, upon completion of his 12-year term. According to an officer stationed there, two police officers are dispatched around the clock to prevent potential crime in the neighborhood.
Shuttles carrying children to a nearby kindergarten passed by Cho’s residence, while four elementary schools, three high schools and a middle school are located within a radius of a few hundred meters from his home. At around four in the afternoon, several high school girls walked by Cho’s apartment.
Despite the widely publicized commotion two years ago around the time of Cho’s return, there was hardly evidence that a notorious criminal lived here anymore. There were no more signs or protestors — just some police officials walking around in pairs.
“I’ve lived here for about two years. I knew (Cho) lived around here somewhere, but I don’t really care. Just that the police would be bored because they have to be there even though nothing ever happens,” said 16-year-old high school student Choi Da-eun.
“My parents used to tell me to be careful when I walk outside during nighttime, but they’re not as worried anymore,” said another 17-year-old high school student surnamed Choi.
Two years after Cho’s move to Wa-dong, it appeared that the child rapist has faded from many residents’ minds.
“There isn’t a major inconvenience caused by a criminal living in the neighborhood. In some sense, the boosted security from newly-installed security cameras and police is even helpful,” said a 55-year-old resident who wanted to be identified by the surname Kim. “The only thing is that (Cho) is such a heinous criminal that it’s a little uncomfortable that he lives here.”
As of now, there is no legal clause restricting criminals’ place of residence. Information on Cho — his name, photograph, address and details of his crime — has been made public via a website operated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family at www.sexoffender.go.kr. It will remain online for five years from his release, and he will have to wear a GPS ankle monitor for seven years after release. After that, he will have paid a full price for his crime, at least according to the law, and will be a free man.
Three months before Cho was set free, the father of Cho’s victim said in an interview with local media that his family has been unable to move from Ansan because his daughter feared leaving behind friends who have helped her out. Cho’s residence was under a kilometer away from the victim’s home, and the court only handed him a 100-meter minimum restraining order from the victim, as permitted by the law.
The victim’s family ended up leaving their longtime home in Ansan a month before Cho’s return, thanks to financial aid from a fundraising campaign. This sparked public furor as to why the victim, and not the criminal, had to move.
Does Korea need its own ‘Jessica’s Law’?
Around the time of Cho’s release, South Korean lawmakers proposed several revisions to the law to strengthen residential restrictions against child sex criminals. The current Act on the Protection of Children and Youth Against Sex Offenses stipulates a restraining order of 100 meters from the residence and school of the victim.
Rep. Jung Choun-sook of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea in 2020 proposed a revision that would have changed the restraining order distance from a minimum of 100 meters to 1 kilometer, and to expand the areas under the restraining order to include the victim’s kindergarten or child-related facilities. It also proposed to up the minimum punishment for sexual assault from five years in prison to seven. Rep. Ko Young-in of the same party proposed another revision that would have restricted child sex offenders like Cho from moving beyond 200 meters from his home.
While neither of the legislative proposals have been passed, similar controversy and protests resurfaced with this year’s release of the serial rapist Park Byung-hwa.
The prospects of these bills being passed were bleak from the get-go as they, particularly Rep. Ko’s, had elements that could be in violation of constitutional rights. “All citizens shall enjoy freedom of residence and the right to move at will,” says the Article 14 of the Constitutional Law.
South Korean law currently has no clause that restricts where sex offenders who have attacked minors can reside. The aforementioned clause of the juvenile sex offense law states that the criminals cannot approach the victim, but says nothing about approaching minors in general or living near schools.
In the US, 42 states have passed legislation that prohibit registered sex offenders from living within varying levels of distance from schools and parks. The so-called “Jessica’s Law” was named after a young Florida girl whose kidnapping, rape and murder sparked passage of the law.
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon on Thursday said that the government is pushing for implementation of similar measures in the country.
“I am well aware that (Korean) society is infuriated and baffled about how there are no means to stop (sex criminals) from living near schools…We (the government) will consider a ‘groundbreaking measure’ like Jessica’s Law in the US that will ban sex offenders from living near schools,” Han said.
With the country seemingly moving toward stricter restrictions on sex offenders, there are those who stress the need for a long-term plan to prevent repeat offenses of such heinous crimes.
Local lawyer Kim Jae-ryeon in a recent column stressed the necessity of helping convicts reintegrate into society after release, rather than focusing solely on the punishment. She mentioned the Circles of Support and Accountability system — existing throughout Canada, the UK, and some regions of the US — that provides professional supervision to support sex offenders in order to reduce repeat offenses.
“When by providing mentorship (to convicts), it helps boost their urge to be reintegrated into society… If an expert were to keep track of what guys like Cho and Park are thinking through regular counseling sessions, the society could be that much safer,” wrote Kim, the attorney most well-known for representing the alleged victim of the sexual harassment case involving late former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
“All criminals should be rightfully punished, but their basic rights as human beings should not continue to be attacked afterwards. And members of the community should aid their return to the society, based on the belief that people can change.”