South Korea’s Gun(-Free) Culture
It was my first night in South Korea, and my hagwon manager had just picked me up from the airport. As he drove to my apartment, I watched neon signs glowing noraebang, motel and hof flash by my window. I was exhausted from my 30-hour journey from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Daegu, South Korea, so our small talk would have long been forgotten if not for his choice of words when the conversation rounded on safety.
“We are free from guns.”
For an American, those are loaded words.
The last five years have been witness to several mass-casualty shootings in the US, and I’ve read most of the headlines from abroad, those five words echoing in my head: “We are free from guns.” The words were such a stark contrast to how many Americans see the right to bear arms as a freedom – a freedom that some say needs to be protected and others say needs to be limited. But that’s as far as I’m going to wade into the murky depths that is gun politics in America. Instead, I’m going to talk about the presence of guns – real or otherwise – in South Korea and how living in a ‘gun-free’ country has caused me to reflect on my own feelings.
Guns in South Korea
South Korea strictly regulates the ownership of guns. Although most men are trained in the use of firearms during their mandatory military service, private citizens may not carry guns to protect their household or person. Violation of firearms laws can result in serious fines and prison time.
Hunting and sporting licenses are issued after taking classes on gun safety, but firearms used in these circumstances must be stored at a local police station. In most cases, firearms may only be checked out during hunting season and must never be kept overnight. The total number of civilian-owned guns is estimated at some 510,000.
Gun-related deaths in South Korea are among the lowest in the world, but they do occur. Last year, there were two shootings over the course of just three days, both involving firearms obtained for hunting.
According to a 2013 article in The Korea Times, suicides, homicides and accidents involving firearms occur more frequently in the military but often go unreported. Despite these transgressions, South Korea’s reported rate of homicides by firearm is a mere .03 per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
By comparison, that number is 4.5 per 100,000 – nationally in the US – with the highest rate clocking in at 16.5 in the nation’s capital.
From the Hands of Babes
There are times I forget I live in a foreign land. But this wasn’t one of those times. As I sat waiting to greet my sister at the arrivals gate in Incheon International Airport, I watched a young boy wielding a toy handgun, crouching and shooting at imaginary figures. I couldn’t help but imagine how this game of make-believe would likely be perceived as inappropriate at an American airport. But nobody here batted an eye.
My students often bring realistic toy guns (no orange tips, as are required in the States) into the classroom. I asked one of my middle school students if he had any toy guns at home. “Sure, I have four,” he said. “I used to be really into guns when I was 10 years old. I have a shotgun, an AK, an Uzi and a handgun … I think it’s a Glock.”
These days, he said he’s more interested in computer games … and girls.
The sight of Korean children playing with realistic toy guns was a bit shocking at first. It’s not that American children don’t play with toy guns; shooter games, airsoft, paintball and laser tag are all popular pastimes. However, there’s a time and a place for these activities, which certainly doesn’t include airports or classrooms. In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by police officers in Ohio after they mistook his toy gun for a deadly weapon.
South Korea might not be free of guns – one only needs to look as far as the nearest police station, bank or airport – but, at least on the domestic front, it does seem to be free from the fear of guns. Toy guns in the hands of school children are cause for little alarm in a country where it’s unlikely that children could get their hands on the real thing.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of culture shock is that it forces us to rethink our idea of normal. For me, that has meant acknowledging cultural baggage that I didn’t realize I was carrying: the social and historical implications of guns in America. The unease I feel at the sight of my Korean students wielding toy guns is likely grounded in the fact that guns are so pervasive in my own country that children have to worry about being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong toy.