A former officer in the South Korean army, Don Chon was stationed in the harsh and isolated region of the demilitarized zone in the late 1990s.
“My regiment was responsible for guarding the fence between North and South Korea,” said Chon, now an Auburn University at Montgomery criminologist. “Four battalions switched the guard duty every six months.”
Looking back, Dr. Chon says there were some tense encounters such as the time North Korean spies arrived by submarine and attempted to cross the border.
“We were on high alert to chase them,” he recalled. “Several South Korean soldiers were killed during the mission.”
After moving to the U.S., Chon enrolled in Florida State University's highly-rated criminology program and the Auburn Montgomery researcher now analyzes world homicide and suicide rates.
An author of three books and numerous journal articles as well as a presenter at national and international conferences, Chon’s work has been widely cited by international scholars of criminology.
“I specialize in the comparative and cross-national analysis of violent crimes,” said Chon who has worked in the AUM Department of Criminal Justice since 2011. “My goal is to identify the contributing factors of violent crime across countries.”
Chon uses data from international sources such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization which collect figures from police agencies in member countries. He says homicide statistics are the most reliable cross-national crime data to study because the definition of other crimes may vary from one country to another.
“I wanted to make my studies unique by studying homicide and suicide from the same theoretical perspective,” he said.
Chon’s research has examined the factors affecting violent crime including the victim’s gender, income, religion, access to medical resources, as well as a country’s economic development. Recently, he also studied the relationship between civilian gun ownership and homicide rates.
But basically, he points out, homicide and suicide are fundamentally tragic expressions of similar extreme human emotions.
“Developed countries show high suicide rates whereas developing countries exhibit high homicide rates,” he noted. “Suicide and homicide may share the same underlying cause: frustration and anger. People in a developed country are likely to direct violence toward themselves as an expression of frustration by blaming themselves for their failure. By contrast, disadvantaged groups of people in developing countries are likely to direct violence toward others by blaming them for their failure.”
It’s the hope of criminologists such as Chon that their research can be used to reduce crime.
“The countries with poverty, a high-income disparity among people, and autocracy tend to show a high homicide rate,” he concludes. “Policymakers need to make an effort to reduce poverty, narrow income disparity among people, and enhance the democratic system.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).