Sunday, November 23, 2008

Guilt beneath the Quilt

Throughout much of the year South Koreans have been entertained by a juicy scandal involving the prominent actress Ok So-ri and her estranged husband, the television personality Park Chul. He accused his wife of having affairs with an Italian chef and with another singer.

Ok admitted to one of the affairs but claimed their ten-year marriage was unhappy and her husband inadequate. In 2005 a former beauty queen and minor celebrity named Kim Ye-boon became an even bigger celebrity when her husband accused her of having an affair. He later withdrew the accusation.

Anywhere else in the world and these accusations would have been simple tabloid fodder, but in South Korea adultery is against the law, and Chul had charged his wife with a crime that, in theory, could have put her behind bars for up to two years.

In this instance Ok appealed to South Korea’s Constitutional Court, asking that it overturn the 55-year-old law. In late October the court, for the fourth time in the past dozen years, ruled that the law should stand. “Society’s legal perception that adultery is damaging to the social order continues to be effective,” the court stated.

The latest celebrity flap put the spotlight on the fact that South Korea is one of the few countries left in non-Muslim Asia, indeed in much of the developed world, that still makes adultery is a crime. Many South Koreans are happy about that and argue that it is a necessary bulwark against a Western culture of sexual permissiveness.

Beneath the veneer of modernity, the country is still strongly influenced by deeply imbedded Confucian precepts on the role of women and concern for maintaining a proper social order. However, these traditional values are coming increasingly into conflict with newer currents of individuality, gender equality and concerns for privacy, even in South Korea.

The irony is that when the law was originally adopted in 1953, it was considered a break with tradition and was opposed by conservatives. After all, it was not so long ago that it was common for wealthy men have concubines and “second” wives. The law initially was originally defended as a means of discouraging polygamy.

(The Japanese had a similar law before World War II, - applicable in Japan’s colonies of Korea and Taiwan, but it was limited to the misdeeds of wives. Women could not sue their husbands for adultery. During the Occupation the Americans sought to make it applicable to both sexes, but Japan decided simply to drop it.)

Until very recently, the anti-adultery law was strongly supported by women groups who believed that the ability to accuse their adulterous husbands of a crime gave them some leverage in divorce suits that might otherwise leave them destitute. In recent years, however, women’s support networks are beginning to question their support.

For one thing, as the celebrity cases mentioned above indicate, more and more men are bringing suits. Some 40 per cent of the charges now are levied against wives. So it is thought that women suffer most from the law, both in court and in the court of public opinion when, as with Ok So-ri, the case breaks into the public

And women in South Koreas as elsewhere in Asia are gradually gaining independence and are less dependent on such coercive laws in divorce suits. Cases continue to be filed - some 1,200 indictments were handed down in 2007 alone, but fewer and fewer are actually going to trial.

It seems only a matter of time before the law is overturned or repealed. It wasn’t until 1989 that the first constitutional challenge was made, some 30-odd years after its passage. But since that time three more challenges have been made. In its 2001 ruling the Constitutional Court suggested that the lawmakers decriminalize adultery.

In the latest ruling the nine-member court split 5-4 in favor of overturning the adultery law, which if it had happened before the U.S. Supreme Court, would have meant the law was deemed unconstitutional. However, in South Korea six judges must concur before a decision on a law’s constitutionality can be affected. So for now at least adultery remains a crime in South Korea.


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