The Korea Herald


Fearing stabbing rampages, South Koreans turn to self-defense

By Yonhap

Published : Sept. 6, 2023 - 09:20

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Students practice how to defend themselves from an attack using a bag during a self-defense class on Saturday. (Yonhap) Students practice how to defend themselves from an attack using a bag during a self-defense class on Saturday. (Yonhap)

Choi Yeon-su, a 24-year-old office worker, rehearsed over and over again how to use her bag to protect herself in a self-defense class last weekend, as the instructor told the students to hold up their bags diagonally to better shield against a knife attack.

"Always bear in mind that attacks can come toward your throat. Make sure to shield yourself diagonally," the instructor said as the students practiced putting up their bags. "Good job! You've now earned 10 seconds to run away."

Choi and her 13 classmates, including one of her best friends, were among an increasing number of South Koreans signing up for self-defense classes in the wake of a series of deadly stabbing rampages and unprovoked attacks targeting random people in recent months.

Her fears of such attacks spiked after last month's stabbing spree in Bundang, south of Seoul, left two people dead and 12 others wounded. A day later, her company even sent an emergency notice telling employees not to come in as a precaution.

"I was so scared to go out on the streets because I could always be in an area with a lot of people but there was really nothing I could do," she said after the self-defense class offered at the Seongdong Safety Learning Center run by the Seongdong Ward office.

But instead of living in fear, Choi said she decided to hone the skills of self-protection and signed up for the two-hour course. It took nearly a month for her to finally attend the class, but it was worth the wait, she said.

The center's original objective was to teach both adults and children appropriate responses to accidents and natural disasters, but its chief Kang Sung-ho said he decided to open a self-defense class upon viewing CCTV footage of the brutal knife attack near the Sillim Station in Seoul.

The Saturday class focused on learning how to use everyday objects, like bags, smartphones and lipstick, for protection. Students also rehearsed proper bag handling techniques and ways to minimize injury when faced with a sudden attack.

Upon concluding the two-hour session, all 14 students engaged in one-on-one scenarios with the instructor, simulating real-life encounters with random knife attackers on the streets.

South Korea is known for its strict gun control and relatively low crime rate. But that reputation has been challenged recently amid a series of violent crimes, back-to-back stabbing attacks and other random assaults that occurred in the country's capital and its surrounding areas.

On July 21, Cho Seon, 33 wielded a knife at random men, fatally stabbing one person and injuring two others near Sillim Station. Subsequently, another knife attack targeted 14 people in a mall south of Seoul, followed by an assault involving a man beating and raping a woman near a hillside in southern Seoul.

A Gallup Korea poll showed that 82 percent of 1,001 respondents over 18 were either "very worried" or "concerned" about becoming a victim of a random attack.

To address the concerns, police declared a state of "special policing" operations, deploying armored vehicles in highly populated areas, beefing up patrols, and conducting stop and search operations against people suspected of holding a weapon on the streets. Some regional governments in the capital installed additional CCTV cameras to reduce blind spots.

But concerns loomed for some individuals like Choi despite the efforts, prompting them to seek self-defense classes and other portable items for self-protection.

Over the last month, more than 20 new people signed up at Kim Han-min's gym in central Seoul, which focuses on Krav Maga, a martial art originally developed for the Israel Defense Forces. New enrollments increased sharply by approximately 30 percent from the previous year, he said.

Sales of self-defense items, such as whistles and portable sticks, on the e-commerce platform Interpark Corp. surged remarkably, going up more than twofold on-year over the span of 12 days in the aftermath of the Sillim knife attack.

Likewise, the self-defense classes offered by the Seongdong Ward were also "unexpectedly" successful.

While registration for other classes typically takes one to two weeks to reach capacity, the registration for all four self-defense classes closed within a mere six hours, ward spokesperson Kim Seon-mi said. The enthusiastic response encouraged the office to incorporate them into the center's standard curriculum in the upcoming year.

The National Police Agency advised against individuals attempting to confront attackers on their own, noting even those with years of martial arts training might find themselves unexpectedly immobilized in the face of an unforeseen assault.

"We wouldn't recommend people to confront an individual wielding a weapon with their bare hands. The best action is to promptly distance yourself from the situation and immediately contact the police," said a police official overseeing crime prevention policies.

Instructor Chon Sun-yong also emphasized that self-defense skills should only serve as a means to create a window of opportunity for escaping from a threatening situation and to feel more prepared in going out.

And that feeling of reassurance was the biggest takeaway for Choi, she said.

"I used to fear going out, but not anymore, because now I know what to do," she said. (Yonhap)