SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Korea Bizwire) — As South Korea grapples with a series of “don’t-ask-why” crimes targeting random people, one common trait stands out among the suspects behind the recent killings.
They showed signs of being “reclusive loners,” largely shut out from outside contact for months and, in some cases, even years.
In May, Jung Yoo-jung triggered social resentment when she confessed to having killed and dismembered the body of a victim she randomly met via an app “out of curiosity” about murder.
The 23-year-old was believed to have been shut off from the outside world for five years prior to the crime, spending most of her time at home without a job, while immersing herself in TV programs and books on murder.
Police investigations revealed that she had no contact information or call history related to friends.
Cho Seon, the suspect behind the deadly stabbing rampage near Sillim Station in Seoul last month that left one dead and three wounded, had also led a reclusive life since December after going through a series of personal setbacks, including a breakdown of family relationships and economic struggles.
A string of similar unprovoked “don’t-ask-why,” or “mudjima” in Korean, crimes followed suit, including a stabbing rampage at a mall in Bundang, south of Seoul, and a random attack against a female teacher on a hiking trail in Seoul, with both suspects known to have had almost no contact with anyone outside of their family.
Oh Yoon-sung, a professor of police administration at Soonchunhyang University in the western city of Asan, told Yonhap News Agency that a lack of social relationships can be problematic, as it leads people to make “subjective or dogmatic judgments on their own,” without leaving room for outside opinion to verify its logic or rationality.
Experts also point out that some of the suspects, including Cho Seon, seemed to have turned to life on the web as an escape route from reality.
“Unlike in the real world, they can show themselves off and be acknowledged in cyberspace, which makes them even more absorbed in the other world, continuously looking for something more provocative,” said Lee Yoon-ho, who teaches police science at the Cyber University of Korea.
“The problem arises when they mistake the virtual world for the real one and act out with extreme violence following a trigger event,” he added.
Amid growing public fear in the wake of back-to-back mass stabbings and indiscreet online murder threats, the government has put forward several countermeasures centered on strengthening security and imposing severe punishment on criminals.
Earlier this month, the national police chief declared a state of “special policing” operations, vowing to beef up patrols and stop and search operations on the streets aimed at people who possess weapons or act suspiciously.
The government has also pushed to pass laws, which include giving life sentences without parole for vicious criminals and establishing specialized prisons to facilitate the rehabilitation of perpetrators involved in heinous crimes.
Experts agree that while harsh punishment can act as a deterrent or delay copycat crimes, the government’s approach, which is reactive in its nature, does not address the fundamental problem so as to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.
“We are too caught up in thinking about how to punish the people behind the criminal acts, that we don’t talk in-depth about why these so-called criminals became shut-ins, or how to pull them out of their shells,” Lee said.
The recent string of heinous crimes has sparked wider public debate on the growing number of reclusive young people in the country, who are choosing to shut themselves in and limit their social interactions amid a high unemployment rate and an unfavorable economic situation.
A government-led survey shows that 2.4 percent of the respondents, or an estimated more than 246,000 young people, were considered to be “reclusive youth,” who said they usually stay at home.
This includes people who only go outside to visit a nearby convenience store or for a hobby.
Thirty-five percent of them pointed to “hardships in finding work” as the main reason for leading a secluded life, followed by 10 percent who blamed “difficulties in human relationships,” according to the Office for Government Policy Coordination last year.
“Young people need to transition into society after finishing their studies, but various social barriers, including the unfavorable job market, are keeping them at bay; isolated and helpless,” said Lee Byung-hoon, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University.
Adding to the grim picture, over 1.26 million graduates, more than half of them holding a college degree or higher, were unemployed as of May, data by Statistics Korea shows.
Professor Lee said the government should start with acknowledging the challenges facing young people in their transition from school to work.
“The government should not only create new jobs, but also provide comprehensive support to bring vitality back to job seekers in the form of psychological counseling, financial support, which could be used to pay off debt and secure affordable housing, or through various cultural activities.”