The Korea Herald


Revisiting Korea's journey to finding sex crime victims' rights

Korea has come a long way, but still has room for improvement

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : June 25, 2023 - 15:30

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In 1964, then-18-year-old Choi Mal-ja became a convict for fighting off an attempted rapist by biting off a part of his tongue, with the prosecution and court waving off her claims of self-defense.

This case, for which she currently seeks a retrial, stands as a landmark in wrongful convictions and serves as a reminder of the abysmal state of women's rights during that era.

Since then, the rights of women or sex crime victims in South Korea have undergone several changes. These include the enactment of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Victims Protection Act in 1994 and the launching of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family – formerly the Ministry of Gender Equality -- in 2010. Multiple victims of past sex crimes in the country have also been motivated to come forward as part of the global #MeToo movement.

Here, The Korea Herald recounts the legal battles that have chipped away at widespread misogyny and raised awareness about the rights of sex crime victims in South Korea. The nation has come a long way since the days when a court tried to validate the victim’s virginity during trial.

Marriage as ‘peaceful solution’ to rape crimes

Though unthinkable and abhorrent today, it was not uncommon for courts of the 1960s and 1970s in South Korea to play matchmaker between rape victims and their rapists.

The Korea Herald’s June 13 story “56 years overdue: Victim of 1964 sexual assault seeks justice” told how Choi was urged by the court, and even her lawyer, to marry the man who attacked her. Past articles suggest that such a situation was not an isolated incident.

“Court pairs defendant and victim,” was the headline of a story published in a May 20, 1973 edition of the now-defunct weekly magazine Sunday Seoul. The article reports that judges of the Daegu High Court managed to pair a 17-year-old rape victim with her attacker, also 17.

“The judges persuaded the two families by saying, ‘(The victim) is already damaged, so it would be better for the two to be paired up and live happily,’ and managed to engage them in court,” the story reads.

Appearing on local cable channel tvN’s “Crime Trivia,” lawyer Seo Hye-jin said it was common at the time for people to suggest such a union, if rape cases involve two unmarried parties.

“The police, prosecutors, judges and even her lawyer mentioned a wedding (in Choi’s case),” she said.

“Every legal expert (in South Korea) knows of (Choi’s) case. It is incomprehensible now, and it is plain wrong even by the standards back then.”

The absurd custom apparently continued well into the 1990s, even as women’s rights began to slowly improve in South Korea.

A Dec. 25, 1998 article published in the local newspaper Hankyoreh reports that the Seoul High Court reduced the sentence of a 23-year-old rapist from a prison term to suspended jail term, after the parents of both the rapist and his victim agreed to marry the two. The victim was 17 at the time.

Victim of sexual harassment wins for 1st time

Prior to the 1990s, the word “sexual harassment” did not even exist in mainstream public discourse, and it was only in 1996 with the enactment of the Gender Equality Act that the word first appeared in the South Korean law. As such, making unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or advances were not even perceived as crimes.

In 1993, a teaching assistant at Seoul National University surnamed Woo accused her former boss, a professor named Shin Jeong-hyu, for making improper sexual remarks and physical contact without her consent. Woo also claimed that Shin fired her when she refused to comply with his advances.

After a six-year lawsuit, the professor was eventually ordered by the court to pay Woo five million won in financial compensation. It was a landmark ruling marking the first time sexual harassment was legally punished in the country.

The court acknowledged instances where Shin touched Woo's hand, shoulder and back without her consent. Furthermore, he had made comments about her hair while touching it, invited her to a personal dinner with drinks after her official hiring, and exhibited inappropriate behavior such as looking her up and down.

“The illegal nature of the so-called sexual harassment has not been previously dealt with by law, instead being settled among related parties. But it is a new form of illegal act that has many elements that could lead to legal problems in the future,” the Supreme Court stated in its ruling. In the aftermath of the incident, Seoul National University launched a special committee on sexual violence and a hotline for the victims in 1998.

The late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was Woo’s legal representative in the landmark case, working pro bono.

At that time, the activist lawyer said that the case was an opportunity for South Korean men to treat women as equals and for the country to mandate employers to set regulations against sexual harassment.

But in an ironic twist, Park himself in 2020 was accused of sexually harassing his secretary during his second term as the capital’s mayor. Park died by suicide that year after the police began investigating the allegations.

Woo’s win itself would turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Despite losing the case, Shin retained his tenure at the prestigious university until his retirement in 2008, while Woo failed to land a job as a teaching assistant at other educational institutions.

Mission not yet accomplished

In 2004, a South Korean court handed the first-ever ruling for a marital rape when a man received a jail term of 2 1/2 years with a three-year suspension for forcing his wife to engage in non-consensual sexual intercourse. It was a reminder of how much the country has progressed since a 1970 ruling by the Supreme Court, when it dismissed an identical case.

But in some recent cases, there have been some questionable rulings.

In 2019, the Gwangju High Court overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss a vice principal of an elementary school for sexually assaulting a female taxi driver. What sparked a nationwide furor was the court’s reasoning that the victim -- as a 67-year-old woman -- has “a lot of social experience” and she “did not seem to have received tremendous shock” or sexual humiliation from the incident.

The Supreme Court in 2020 rejected the Gwangju court’s decision, saying that the victim’s age or experience does not mean the case should be taken lightly.

While not as prevalent as in the past, such rulings suggest that South Korea’s awareness of sex crime victims’ rights has room for improvement. In case of Choi -- who has to live with a reputation of a tongue-biter who ruined a young man’s life over a kiss – she has been fighting for her retrial since 2020. However, two courts have already dismissed her request so far.

While admitting that the initial ruling that made her a criminal was wrong, the judges said a ruling “made half a century ago in a different sociocultural context” should not be challenged for the sake of the stability of the country’s legal system.

While South Korea has made legislative changes to protect sex crime victims, the victims stress that these changes should be applied fairly in real cases. They also suffer secondary victimization due to lack of sensitivity from the media and the public.

“I’m not trying to change the law. I’m asking for my case to be tried in accordance to the law. All I’m asking for is the fair application of the law,” said Choi, who awaits the Supreme Court’s decision on her retrial request.