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Remembering Sunny Kim and Why We Believe Survivors

Content Warning: mention of violent death, photos of physical abuse

Scroll past this article for the beginner resource guide for abusers.

Source: GoFundMe page, hosted by Mary Huang for Sunny’s family

Image Description: Graduation photo of Sunny Kim, wearing her cap and gown in front of the United States flag and New York state flag.

Why Now: Remembering Sunny Kim

To be honest, I’m wrote this because I couldn’t sleep. So much of what’s happening recently has brought up remembering Sunny Kim, a girl I never met and a Sister I will hold in my heart forever. In the past week, sorority sisters from several Asian Greek organizations have come forward with their stories of surviving sexual assaults and rape from members of Asian Greek fraternities. There is a growing list of over 70 different fraternity chapters with alleged abusers in each chapter. Some people have posted where these alleged abusers work and go to school. There is a growing database of every known alleged offender, intending to report them to their organizations. There were screenshots of a private fraternity group chat that existed to share nude photos of women without the women’s knowledge or consent, with comments mocking survivors’ testimonies of assault. There were comments from men who ranged from not understanding why what abusers did “was so bad” to questioning what they’re supposed to do next in fear of cancel culture.

It’s the defensive, self-serving responses from these men that remind me of Sunny’s tragedy. Sunny was described as a bringer of light and laughter. She was four years into her career as an educator and just landed a huge job opportunity. Sunny was young, had people who loved her, and was going to celebrate her achievements.

Sunny Kim didn’t deserve to die because of one man’s distorted perception of how to manage a relationship.

#StoryOfSunny

Sunny *LaRok* Kim was almost two years older than me and joined Kappa Phi Lambda in Fall 2010 at the University of Albany. After graduating in 2011 with a degree in Economics and East Asian Studies, she moved to South Korea to be a teacher. Sunny met her boyfriend, Mr. Lee, while working as a professor in Busan. On May 2, 2015, the day she accepted a new job offer, her boyfriend strangled her to death.

Despite Mr. Lee’s pleas that her death was the result of a random fit of rage, her family and friends report otherwise. They shared photos Sunny had sent of bruises, broken fingers, and black eyes. It’s unclear why Sunny reported these injuries to the local police and was not given resources to protect her or keep her safe.

Source: Story of Sunny website

Description: Four pixelated photos of Sunny’s face, indicating large red bruises on her lef cheek and what seems to be a swollen left eye. Fifth photo shows a heavily bandaged finger, likely a broken finger in a splint.

Her killer put her body in a suitcase, and buried the suitcase on a nearby mountain. He covered her grave site with concrete and flowers. For the next few weeks, he pretended to be Sunny via text and social media, and then alleged to have attempted suicide before turning himself in. According to an interview with Dr. Bokjun Kim, a South Korean police academy professor, it’s likely Mr. Lee’s sentence will be reduced because of his attempted suicide. Though the family is pushing for no less than premeditated murder, the most recent news about the trial seems to point in favor of Mr. Lee.

On Sunny’s GoFundMe page, the last update was posted July 7, 2015:

Update from her sister. The trial was July 2nd. Just wanted you guys to be aware of what is going on.

오늘 재판이 있었습니다. 헬쑥해지기는 커녕 오히려 더 건강해보이는 살인범의 모습을 보니 정말 화가 치밀고 눈물이 흐르더군요. 범인은 형량을 낮추기 위해서 최근 국선변호사를 자르고 법무법인 변호사를 선임했습니다. 재판은 그래서 연기가 되었고, 저희 가족은 다시 한번 가슴이 찢어지네요.

We had a trial at a supreme court today. I was extremely angry to see the murderer’s healthy looking appearance. Listening to the summary of what he had done to my innocent sister was overwhelmingly sad. He, sure, is a monster. My family was terrified to find out that the murderer recently hired a judicial affairs and corporate body lawyer, which cost much higher than hiring regular lawyers (aka Judicial affairs and corporate body lawyers are very skilled). His goal is, of course, to reduce the amount of the penalty that he’ll receive. Today, the trial got pushed and my family’s hearts were torn into a million pieces once more.

I was unable to find any articles or reports about Sunny’s case after 2015. It seems likely that Sunny’s killer had access to a significant amount of money and influence. It also seems likely that his defense of needing care for his mental health was probably successful in greatly reducing his sentence.

Reward System for Violence

Source: Al Jazeera “Believe Survivors protestors walk out as Kavanaugh stands firm.”

Image Description: Group of women of various ages and ethnicities standing in front of the Supreme Court building, some holding young children. Some are holding protest signs such as “I Believe Christine Blasey Ford” and “We Won’t Go Back.” A Black woman is standing in front of microphones, giving a speech before a colorful banner that reads “Believe Survivors.” Brett Kavanaugh was allowed appointment to a Supreme Court Judge position, despite testimony from Dr. Ford who was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh in college.

In 2017, two years after Sunny’s murder, the Korean Institute of Criminology reported that 80% of 2,000 South Korean men admitted they physically or psychologically abused their girlfriends. The study found that 71% of the men engaged in controlling behavior such as deciding what they wore, restricting their time with friends or family members, and access to their phones. South Korea continues to dismiss domestic violence as a “family matter,” with proof in their numbers: of domestic violence reports made between 2014 – 2019, 13% saw arrests, 8.5% received an indictment, and just 0.9% received a prison sentence. In one anecdote, while a South Korean woman was petitioning for

Meanwhile in the United States, a domestic violence incident occurs every 15 seconds. In the United States, 4 women are killed daily in acts of intimate partner violence. On a typical day, a domestic violence hotline receives an average of 20,000 calls. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by a domestic partner at least once in their lifetime. The data was incomplete for non-binary people, though named that transgender people were twice more likely to experience domestic violence.

Even when abusers are convicted, sentences can be reduced based on the abuser’s status and influence. Such was the case of Asian American Chanel Miller, who was raped by Brock Turner, a white male student a Stanford University on the school swim team. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and was sentenced to six months in prison. He was released after three months for “good behavior.”

Aside from horror, pain, and tragedy, what are we supposed to learn from these numbers? What do the spirits of women like Sunny Kim want us to remember from their lives and their deaths?

Let’s start with believing their pain. Let’s start with stopping preventable deaths instead of allowing historical harm to continue. Let’s start with holding abusers accountable to justice, and providing survivors, abusers, and our communities the resources they need to heal from this systemic and historical cycle of violence.

Patterns of Pain

Source: Medium “It’s easy to say you believe survivors. It’s harder to actually believe them.”

Image Description: Black background, two white rectangles with dark blue text that read “I don’t believe that you’ll believe me.”

When is the right time to say something? To do something? To try and escape? It takes an average of 7 attempts before a victim is able to break away from an abusive relationship. The National Domestic Violence Hotline blog has a series listing “50 Obstacles to Leaving.” Some reasons include:

  • “I just need to be a better partner. Then they’ll stop hurting me.”
  • “They really will kill me. Staying is safer than trying to leave.”
  • “I chose them over my family and friends, who probably won’t take me back now.”
  • “I don’t trust the police or the court system.”
  • “They need me, I’m the only one that understands them.”
  • “I am damaged, I won’t find a better relationship than this.”

In “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” essayist Elissa Bassist lays out her fears of not being believed:

“I might be overreacting, overemotional, oversensitive, weak, playing victim, crying wolf, blowing things out of proportion, making things up. Because generations of women have heard that they’re irrational, melodramatic, neurotic, hysterical, hormonal, psycho, fragile and bossy.”

“Girls are coached out of the womb to be non-confrontational, agreeable, solicitous, deferential, demure, nurturing, to be tuned in to others, and to shrink and shut up,” 

These myths and fears apply not only to women but to all victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, including men, masculine presenting folx, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

What Can I Do?

There is no perfect, prescribed way to support all survivors, just as each person has different gifts, capacities, and perspectives on how to manage any relationship. Here are some key points I find need the most reminding:

  1. Check yourself. What are the things you’re prepared and able to do in support of your loved one? Also, what are the things you’re not yet prepared or unable to do? Be honest when you need to step back and recharge, be honest about things you want to be able to handle but can’t. Emphasize professional help for your loved one, and also be ready to Love Language them when they’re home.
  2. Channel your energy to your loved one. Avoid spending your energy on violence towards the alleged abuser or encouraging violence as much as possible. Focus on your loved one, their needs, and their leadership on how they want to heal.
  3. Educate yourself. The process to report, heal, and move on can be complicated and confusing. Healing isn’t always getting from Point A to Point B. There are libraries of information [webinars, lesson plans, videos, fact sheets] curated by many organizations that specialize in addressing domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender based violence. Many also rely on donations to keep their services going:

Do what you can, and do it as well as you can. Focus, patience, and humility matters.

#MeToo

I wanted to end on something more clinically useful, but my thoughts just pull me back to wondering why my friend didn’t help me when he knew my boyfriend was abusing me. It was about a year after that relationship ended. We were sipping frappucinos and splitting a coffee cake like we’ve always done. I was a few days from leaving Southern California for my freshman year at NYU. [I remember being especially proud of that, since my abuser made me sign a “contract” promising I wouldn’t go out of state for college.]

We were chatting about me preparing to be off on my own, and then his energy changed. He looked at me and said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I didn’t do anything about last year.” An apology for knowing. Judging by the stare he gave me, I realized he knew about everything.

I felt like a glacier crashed on my head. It was the one lie my eighteen year old self unconsciously held on to: that no one helped me because no one saw it. The years I gaslighted myself into believing this was how a relationship was supposed to be, because we were a church youth group couple and around so many people all the time. But no. This person confirmed what I wish I knew then: they saw. And did nothing.

Later on, I would learn my abuser knocked up the next girl he was with and had the predictable shotgun wedding expected of good boys who are soon-to-be fathers. This friend and I pretty much never spoke again, but through the auntie chismis I learned the highlights of his life since then.

Living away from home allowed me the opportunities I needed to find myself and determine my own values and personality. I went on to have safe, loving, healing relationships, and am currently figuring out what cotton-themed gift to get my partner for our 2nd wedding anniversary in a few weeks. (Why is this a thing?)

What I did take away from that belated apology was that I’d rather risk being wrong about defending someone than being silent and risk being right. So, be brave. Believe survivors, value accountability, and do your part. Fight for us while we’re still here, don’t wait until we’re in our graves. #StoryOfSunny

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