SEOUL (Reuters) — A policewoman's failure to intervene in a stabbing incident has re-ignited a debate over passive policing in South Korea, with some leading conservatives saying the campaign to increase the number of female officers in the force has gone too far.
Stepping into storm caused by last week's incident in the city of Incheon, lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party called on the national police chief on Tuesday to express their misgivings.
"The Police Act stipulates that the top priority is to protect people's lives and health, as well as to prevent and suppress crimes, but the Incheon incident was a complete retreat (by the officer)," lawmaker Oh Yeong-hwan said, according to Yonhap news agency.
On Monday, President Moon Jae-in said it was not a gender issue, but rather a matter of duty for the police to serve and protect the public.
According to reports, police had been responding to a complaint over a noisy neighbor. The man accused of being too noisy then stabbed a woman, who had complained about him, in the neck as she spoke to the female officer.
Rather than seeking to subdue the man, the policewoman, who was armed with at least a Taser, ran downstairs to seek help from her male partner, according to the reports.
The partner then used his Taser to subdue and arrest the man. Police would not confirm if either officer had a gun. The victim of the attack has remained in hospital after receiving emergency surgery, media reports said.
A petition launched by the victim's family calling for punishment of the police gathered more than 230,000 signatures in three days, passing a threshold needed to trigger a government response.
Such controversies have plagued South Korea's police for years. In 2018, officers armed with guns and batons were filmed standing by as seven people assaulted a man who eventually lost the sight in one eye from his injuries.
While excessive use of force by police can be a problem in some countries, like the United States, police in South Korea have been criticized for taking a passive approach despite manuals that empower them to use force if necessary, said Lee Yung-hyeock, a professor of police science at Konkuk University.
"There is a clear lack of field training," he said, adding that the potential for criminal liability is also deterrent for officers using force, like Tasers.
National Police Commissioner Gen. Kim Chang-yong apologized for the incident on Sunday and removed the head of the regional police station. An internal investigation has been ordered into the conduct of the two officers.
Lee Jun-seok, the head the conservative People Power Party, seized on the case on Monday, saying gender equality measures may be weakening the force.
Hiring practices adopted to boost the number of female recruits should be ended to help ensure that police officers are hired only on merit, said Lee, who has loudly criticized feminism and equality programs, saying they had gone too far.
South Korea aims to raise the number of policewomen to 15% of the 130,000-strong force in 2022, up from 13.4% as of December 2020.
The police announced plans in June to upgrade assessment for physical fitness when hiring policewomen and match the standards for men after criticism of double standards.