On November 15th, a man attacked a family with a knife in Incheon over an argument caused by a noise complaint. Before the attack, both a male and also a female police officer were dispatched to the four-story apartment building because the family had reported the neighbor’s threatening behavior.
However, when the male officer brought the husband down to the first floor to ask him questions about his neighbor’s behavior, the perpetrator came back to their apartment and attacked the perpetrator’s wife and his daughter. Instead of intervening, the female officer flew downstairs and the male officer called for backup force, but neither of them went back upstairs. It was the father of the family who eventually stopped the perpetrator.
The two officers were later accused of not handling the situation adequately, especially the policewoman who left the site without proper intervention. The father and the daughter were only slightly injured, but the mother is reported to be brain-dead.
After this incident, some critics demanded that the recruitment of women into the police should be abolished.
This is not the first time that people questioned the existence of women in the police force in Korea. In 2019, a video of a policewoman handling a drunk person was posted online and caused a big stir. In the video, she appeared incapable of arresting a man alone and was asking for help from civilians.
Based on that video, many questioned the general abilities of women serving in the police forces, and many more photos and videos have been shared claiming that policewomen are “useless”.
A Blue House petition demanding the expulsion of the police officer
In contrast to these opinions, the government has recently adopted policies to increase the number of female police officers. However, even though the percentage of female officers has increased, negative public opinions toward policewomen have not changed.
Reasons Behind the Low Number of Women in the Police
Being a police officer is considered a rather masculine occupation, and it can certainly be difficult for women to set foot in a police department, not only in Korea. According to the National Police Agency of South Korea, female officers account for only 13% (Korean link) of the entire police force as of April 2021, which is a relatively low number compared to many other countries: Lithuania (39.3 %), Estonia (35.3 %), the Netherlands (33.7 %), and Sweden (32.6 %). What are the fundamental reasons for that?
For a long time, being a police officer has been considered “tough” and “risky”. Most women in Korea favored professions that can be more easily combined with taking care of a family and tended to select so-called “secure jobs”, such as teacher, clerk, or government official. This cultural perception still remains.
Considering that the two genders have different innate body structures, the standards for the fitness test that police candidates have to pass differ by gender. However, this differential treatment can reinforce the stereotype that women are not capable of handling violent cases as men do.
Opponents of policewomen like to point this out to emphasize their low expectations toward females working as police officers. Hence, South Koreans eventually insisted that no matter what gender it is, police officers of both genders must be able to deal with all kinds of crimes in the same way, and that all have to be able to fulfill the same roles.
Thus, in response to such requests for gender equality in the police forces, the National Police Agency of South Korea has announced that, starting from 2026, equal fitness standards (Korean link) will be adopted for both genders, and that all police officers will be selected according to the same criteria. This will be either a chance for women to prove their competence or another reason for people to completely disregard them as police officers.
Perhaps this perception of women as "too weak" is the reason why the Korean National Police University had limited the number of female students that can enroll every year to 12% until 2020. While there are other ways to enter the police forces, this means that the competition for women has been much higher than that for men until now. After the restriction was abolished this year, women’s acceptance rate has abruptly increased to 22% (Korean link).
Capabilities of Policewomen
However, the persistent rumors about police women's lack of participation are untrue.
First of all, a substantial part of the job of being a police officer is about “communication”. Police officers not only deal with matters using force but also face situations that require communication skills.
According to Pyo Chang-won, a congressman and member of the Democratic Party of Korea (더불어민주당), on the CBS radio show Kim Hyun Jung's News Show (김현정의 뉴스쇼), almost 70% of the tasks of police officers require communication, and female police officers have been shown to be more capable of solving problems by conversation and mediation than men. When male-female duos are dispatched, he added, there are fewer physical clashes between the police and perpetrators.
He further stated that there are many misunderstandings (Korean link) about police duties, and that still dismissing the role of women in the police forces goes against global trends. Moreover, male police officers face difficulties when dealing with sensitive issues including women and teenagers from time to time. Policewomen are needed on these special occasions. One police officer who was interviewed by Edaily said that female officers tend to be more flexible (Korean link) in face-to-face situations.
Difficulties That Policewomen Experience in the Field
The sexualizing of policewomen also remains a common issue. Policewomen suffer from sexual harassment, not only by civilians who come to seek their help but also by their colleagues.
What’s worse, such harassment at the workplace is often disguised as a “joke.” In a survey conducted by the police among their own employees in 2020, 12.1% (Korean link) of total respondents reported that they had experienced sexual harassment during work, with 35% of all female officers reporting such incidents and 5.3% of male officers. More than half of these cases happened in the office.
Such practices can be found in mainstream culture too, which shows how widespread and normalized they are. For example, Beautiful Gunbari (뷰티풀 군바리), a popular digital comic that has been published since 2015 on Naver, has been accused of sexualizing policewomen by depicting their uniforms as indecent and revealing.
Controversies Surrounding Female Officers
(1) Number of Policewomen Working at the Korean National Police Agency
Source: Online Community “FM Korea (에펨코리아)”
This viral post (above) from an online community illustrates what kind of ideas about female police officers are spread online and how baseless the claims often are.
The user who posted this claims that the percentage of women working at the Korean National Police Agency exceeds 70%, the highest ratio among all government agencies.
The poster further claims that women who are selected into the police forces are not capable of working in the field due to the low standards of the fitness tests they undergo. He concludes his post by saying that the feminist gender equality movement focused on “numbers and ratios” is ruining Korea.
However, these claims are not true. According to the Korean National Police Agency, the total number of police officers working in the headquarters is 1,359, and policewomen account for 176 among them, which amounts to only about 13% (Korean link). The gender ratio of the entire police force is quite similar. The entire number of police officers in the country stands at 128,220, and the number of policewomen is 16,786 (Korean link), as of 2020, according to the Ministry of Personnel Management.
(2) Rumors and Insults Provoked by Short-cut Images and Videos
Source: Online Community “DC Inside (디씨인사이드)”
Last September, a photo of a policewoman practicing parking with a male colleague was widely spread online. The person who uploaded the photo made sarcastic remarks that being a policewoman must be a very easy job as they can practice parking during their work. The person added, “They are getting paid by our taxes. This is a waste of public money”.
However, an associate from the Korean National Police Agency refuted the controversy by explaining that driving a police car is an essential job (Korean link). It is common for senior officers to help younger colleagues exercise their driving skills, and this cannot be criticized just because the driver in this case was a woman.
There was another case last June where a photo of a policewoman in the field led to a controversy and to people questioning the role of women in the police forces.
Source: Online community “Bobaedream (보배드림)”
In the image that went viral, the policewoman does not seem to intervene in the arrest her colleague is carrying out but only looks at her cell phone. However, as a response to the criticism, the police made an official announcement that the policewoman in the image was a trainee who had been dispatched from the Korean National Police University with the mission of taking images as evidence (Korean link) for the arrest.
This is another example of how edited photos and videos that do not contain the necessary situational context are used to wrongly judge and accuse policewomen of not doing their job.
Whenever people question the existence of females in the police force, it is policewomen who do their work with passion who end up intimidated and suffer. Regarding the current case where two police officers left the scene without intervening, Lee Eun-ae, Chief of the Yangpyeong Police Station mentioned in her official statement to the Seoul Shinmun, “The officers have no excuse escaping from the site without taking care of the civilians under threat. However, it is more difficult (Korean link) for policewomen than for their male colleagues to ask for support. They are intimidated and want to avoid being blamed for being “incompetent.”
Another anonymous Seoul police officer, when asked to comment on the case by the Seoul Shinmun, pointed out that there is no difference between the genders, but only differences in the ability to react on-site — the system has to change to support every officer in training their abilities, not prevent one gender from entering the field.
잡았다, 요놈! (Jabatda, yonom!)
Don’t move! You’re under arrest!
This image of Podol-i (포돌이), the mascot of the Korean National Police Agency, shining a flashlight at a criminal, can be frequently found online where contents are so controversial or inappropriate that the writer could potentially be arrested by the police.
After struggling to navigate the job market, two individuals, Sang-soo and Jeong-oh, decide to join the police academy. In this series, the lives of police officers, including their superiors and captains, are explored, offering a raw and realistic take on the challenges and triumphs of working in the force. As the freshly graduated cadets join the Hongil Patrol Division, they are faced with the unbearing stress of working at violent crime scenes, and the emotional and mental turmoil that police officers experience in the process.
"I went to suppress a protest today. What is that, you ask? It's when the police get beaten up. Why do we get beaten up without putting up a fight? I don't know why. We were just told to do so. But my seniors say that the police getting beaten up is the right thing. They say if the police do something there might be a bigger problem. So anyway, we didn't take any action today. Even when we got kicked and trampled" - Yeom Sang-soo, Live