During my time working at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center, one of the more well-established response service in Korea, I saw how yellow bodies silently absorbed this cost: sexual assault of Korean women by white men, mostly American, constituted at least a third of the Center’s cases. This is, of course, invisible to those in the West because of the concealed workings of globalization, racism and colonialism, and the failures of carceral feminist approaches to sexual violence.
Later on in her piece, she repeats this claim, following up with alarming speculations:
The normalization and prevalence of sexual violence against Korean women by white men demonstrate the material consequence of the unequal distribution of mobility. The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases, but I wonder what the recorded incidents amount to and how many go unrecorded.
Let’s be clear: what Sim’s attempting to suggest here is twofold:
- That the one-third statistic somehow scales more broadly to Korea as a nation. (Otherwise it would make no sense to say that white males’ violence against Korean women is “normalized” and “prevalent” in South Korea.)
- That white men may in fact be responsible for more than a third of sexual violence in South Korea.
I couldn’t find information about this Seoul Rape Crisis Center she mentions. However, even if the numbers she cites are true for that center—which seems unlikely even if it is located in Itaewon—there is absolutely no way it could scale more generally.
To understand why, you need to know something—even just a little—about population demographics in South Korea. So let’s get into that.
So, in 2011 it was big news when, for the first time, more than 3% of the South Korean population was foreign nationals. However, only a tiny fraction of those all foreigners in Korea are male, white, and Western. In fact, it’s impossible to know how much of that population is white: the Korean government doesn’t provide numbers by ethnicity, only by country of origin and sex. However, it does keep close records of foreigners residing in Korea by nationality: here are the most recent numbers, for September 2016.
If we add up all the male resident foreign nationals from North America, Europe, South Africa, and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand, mainly) we get a total of approximately 121,200 men.
Of course, some percentage of those individuals isn’t white—there’s a sizeable number who are overseas Koreans, and people of other ethnicities or mixed-race status—but even if for simplicity’s sake we assume they were all white, Sim’s claim is utterly untenable. Why?
- 50,500,000: the South Korean population (2016)
- 120,000: “Western” male residents in Korea
In other words, Sim is implying that 0.24% of the population is responsible for 33% of the sexual violence.
Even if every white man were on a 24/7 rape spree for the past year, they’d never manage to perpetrate 33% of the sexual violence in the country, let alone the more than 33%, which, remember, Sim implied they might be responsible for:
The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases, but I wonder what the recorded incidents amount to and how many go unrecorded.
Before switching her Twitter feed to protected mode, Sim was called on this. She defended her claim, stating that she was “talking about tourists” anyway.
Does the claim that tourists are perpetrating sexual crimes in Korea help make Sim’s argument less ridiculous?
Not really: it just shows how poorly she understands the demographics of tourism in Korea. In fact, the South Korean government tracks tourists by sex and country of origin, too: here’s the official government statistics for tourists for 2016.
Examining the numbers we see a few interesting things:
- The vast majority of tourists visiting South Korea (80%-85%) are Asians, not Westerners. (Who, presumably, are immune to accusations of “Yellow Fever.”) In that group, females outnumber males 3:2. That number is changing but in general the stereotypical tourist to Korea is still a Chinese woman, not a white man.
- In 2016, South Korea had about 1.2 million male tourists from Europe, the Americas, and Oceania.
- We don’t (and can’t) know the ages or racial demographics of those male tourists: many are likely white, but many are also likely ethnic Koreans, or members of other ethnic groups. Also, some proportion of them are certainly infants and young children.
- Presumably all those female tourists are subject to the same danger of sexual violence that Korean women face. Therefore, we must also factor them into the overall population calculation, if we’re going to factor tourists into the Western male population.
Once again, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals a lot:
- 67.5 million: Overall Population (including all tourists)
- 1.2 million: Foreign “Western” Male Population (including all “Western” male tourists) (1.77% of total)
Now we’re talking about approximately 1.8% of the population being responsible for 33% of the sexual violence here.
That’s slightly less ridiculous than 0.24%, but we’re still in D.W. Griffiths territory if we’re supposed to take seriously that those white men are on a secret rape spree.
And of course, that’s assuming all tourists are here all at once. In reality, they’d be distributed over the full year. I don’t have the time to graph it all out, but even assuming half those Western male tourists were in-country at one time (say, at the peak of the tourist season), you only have a total of about 720,000 Western men in Korea: I imagine it’s rare for even that many Western men to actually be physically present in Korea at the same time.
If we generously recalculate, assuming half the tourists who visit the country come at the peak of the tourist season, we get:
- 600,000 tourists + 120,000 resident = 720,000 “Western men”
- 8.6 million tourists + 50.5 million residents = 59,100,000 overall national population
- Percentage of aggregate “population” that is “Western men”: 1.22%
All of this made even more clearly ridiculous by the crime statistics in Korea: for reported crimes, non-Koreans in Korea perpetrate disproportionately lower rates of reported sexual violence than the general Korean population.
From the above link:
As for rape (including crimes similar to rape) crime rates, [the rate for] Pakistan’s [foreign residents in Korea] was 5.85 times higher than Korea’s, Bangladesh was 3.2 times higher, Kyrgyzstan was 2.83 times higher, Sri Lanka was 2.43 times higher, and Mongolia was 1.86 times higher.
There’s no mention of “white bodies” (or lurid musings about “Yellow Fever”) among those numbers, for good reason: the rate of reported sexual violence (and violent crime overall) perpetrated by white men in Korea is lower, per capita, than the overall national rate. Those white guys in Korea actually have the effect, statistically, of reducing the apparent rate of sexual crime… unless, of course, we take the word of those who simply categorize any interracial sex as a sex crime.
Now, before I go on, one more thing deserves a moment of scrutiny. While describing how counselors at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center handle cases where foreign perpetrators are reported, she writes:
Survivors rarely know their assailants, and do not recall enough identifiable details to file a report. Those who are able to make a report find themselves in a dead end when they find out that their assailants have left the country. White men come and go–untraceable and unaccountable.
A couple of questions come to mind:
- If the victims don’t know their assailants, how do they know that they’re tourists?
- If the victims don’t recall enough identifiable details to file a report, how can the counselors (and police) be sure that the assailants were actually tourists, and/or have left the country?
Sim is handwaving here, offering an absence of evidence as proof, because an otherwise unprovable (and untenable) argument doesn’t have to stand up to scrutiny. Her narrative of Yellow Fever and white male tourists flocking to Korea to rape locals fits with the nonsensical postcolonial narrative she wants to spin. She’s either clueless about this, or just hoping you’ll miss the fact that there’s no evidence of rampant white criminality here, and no population of white men large enough to perpetrate the number of crimes she’s talking about. And that’s to say nothing of her (questionable) suggestion that crimes by white tourists are less likely to be reported than those perpetrated by fellow Koreans—especially men from within the domestic educational, family, religious, or work social networks of the victims. (All I can say is that I expect exactly the opposite.1
None of this is to say that no sexual violence is perpetrated by white men in Korea: statistics show it does happen, just that it’s a marginal number of cases in absolute terms, and at a lower rate than the national average in per-capita terms.. The fact is that white men in Korea are responsible for very little of the unfortunately prevalent sexual violence here. (Which incidentally, as one physician told me from experience in several emergency rooms in Seoul, happens at a noticeably higher rate in the vicinity of red-light districts like Cheongryangni… which are both larger than the “Hooker Hill” Sim mentions, and of course serve Korean men exclusively.)
Also, it’s worth noting that in a Korean social context, foreign women—white and otherwise—are also exoticized and hypersexualized: if “yellow fever” is caused by this type of depiction of Asian women in the West, shouldn’t a similar dynamic exist in Korea? Anecdotally, I know personally of at least three Asian female students (one overseas-Korean and two foreign) whose classmates attempted to rape them (and in fact modified a typical rape strategy to take advantage of the fact the women were foreigners); meanwhile, I’ve heard multiple reports by Western women who were victims of sexual violence (or attempted sexual violence) by Korean perpetrators.2 And that’s to say nothing of incidents where sexual (and other) violence is endured by mail-order brides at the hands of Korean husbands here—again, a much larger population than the white male population in Korea.
This stuff ought to interest a supposed feminist with an concern for sexual violence… shouldn’t it? Sim ought to know all this—she lived here, and she’s an academic who claims to be interested in sexual violence. One supposes she’s actually more interested in spinning a clever-sounding narrative about “carceral feminism” and Yellow Fever and postcolonial racial politics, and facts and numbers and evidence be damned. There’s really only two possible explanations: Sim’s either been blinded by racism (in a way that’s sadly common in South Korea, in fact), or she’s utterly incompetent to discuss the demographics of sexual violence in South Korea, or she was just too lazy to look up the statistics and facts.
None of those options is particularly flattering—especially for someone researching “rape prevention technology”—nor does it reflect well on the institutions at which she studied: Harvard should have equipped her with at least a little understanding of statistics, and nobody this innumerate should be a candidate for a D. Phil.
Ms. Sim is welcome to address my assessment in the comments: if she can explain how in the world it sounds reasonable for 1.7% of a population to be responsible for more than 33% of the sexual violence occuring within it, and how this is a secret that neither law enforcement not the media know about (especially when it would be front page news and a huge media scandal), I’m all ears.
In the meantime, for those of you who actually do care about South Korea’s problems with sexual violence, here’s something a little more sensible you might prefer to read on the subject: how it’s a systemic problem, and what Koreans and foreigners are doing to address that.