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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Knowing your legal rights.

A Korean man threatened to hit a foreigner with a chair, and when he was physically removed from the situation, called the police on the foreigners involved, which ended up in several days of legal hassle until he decided to drop it. A foreign man was surrounded and threatened by a large group of men, but is facing legal problems because, though threatened, he may have struck the first blow in the fight. A foreign woman was grabbed by the hair, thrown to the ground and dragged about a meter by a Korean man, then physically prevented from leaving the scene, but the police did nothing to the man because the woman had previously smacked his face when he threatened to punch her. All of these stories have occurred within the last two or three weeks, to people I personally know. In fact, I was a witness in two cases.

In all of these cases, the foreigners are technically, legally at fault, despite being physically threatened.

The first person to lay hands on the other is the one at fault for starting the fight. Because of this, many men will posture and threaten, but not actually make contact with you. Your best action is to walk away (or run). This is not being a chicken, it is being smart. The “self-defense” rule here is different from home. Being threatened is not enough – you have to have been physically assaulted first. If you make contact first, you are at fault. Even if someone was threatening to throw a chair at your friend’s head.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, know your rights. Korea does have a Miranda law which is very similar to the US (it’s even called Miranda). You have the right to remain silent. Use it. Make sure your rights are read to you if you’re being arrested. You have the right to contact a lawyer. There are police translators available, so if you don’t speak fluent Korean, make sure you have a translator clearly explaining everything to you before you agree to anything or sign anything. Calling a Korean friend is another option. It can be comforting just to have someone who both speaks the language fluently, and is on your side. Embassies can’t do much beyond helping you contact a lawyer and making sure your basic rights under Korean law are being protected. They cannot get you out of jail. Each country has its own limits on how much assistance they will offer, so check your countries embassy page to find out what they can and can’t do for you. However, getting the embassy involved will often make your aggressor re-think his position.

Please remember that Korean Law is different from the laws at home, and these differences can be very important distinctions. Don’t assume that something that is legal or defensible at home is legal or defensible here. But you are covered by basic rights. Knowing them will help you, should you find yourself in a police station. You should know if you are entitled to compensation (aka Blood money) if you have been injured or attacked, or if you will be responsible for making the payment.

Some police officers will be very helpful and kind, but often, in my personal experience (not only with the recent events but in past issues with traffic accidents – again as a witness, none of them mine, knock on wood) the officers tend to be rather gruff and unhelpful. In fact, in one instance, the older of the two officers spent his time telling the attacker how foreign English teachers are a big problem in Korea, and that we should all go home, and that Koreans should take care of Koreans, assuming we foreigners knew no Korean.

Remember, these situations crop up when they’re least unexpected. My friend hardly expected to be threatened and assaulted in a crowded subway station on a Saturday afternoon. Taking the time to be aware of your rights and obligations before anything happens will help you navigate the situation if something should go awry. Situations and emotions can escalate rapidly, and you can find yourself behaving in a way you never thought possible when you have a fist in your face. As the Girl Guides (Or was that the Scouts?) always taught us – Be Prepared.

Ultimately the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to try to remain calm, and to walk away from situations where tensions are rising. While the majority of people you’ll encounter in Korea are wonderful, kind, or at least indifferent to your existence, there are a handful that take exception to foreigners living here, or who have quick tempers. (This can be especially true if a young foreign woman stands up to an older Korean man.)

As the elephant sanctuary guy says to Homer, when asked why Stampy is attacking the other elephants, “Some of them act badly because they’ve had a hard life, or have been mistreated. But, like people, some of them are just jerks.”

And don’t buy headphones or cell phone cases from the dude in the shop by Exit 2 of the Hongik University subway stop in Seoul. He is a horribly violent man. A huge thank you to the 5-6 anonymous men who helped rescue my friend from his clutches, and to the lovely gentleman who accompanied us to the subway guard station.