'Mitigating Factors': What's Behind South Korea's History of Giving Light Sentences For Sex Crimes?

The repeated slaps on the wrist hint at the "cultural remains" of a time when women were viewed as objects, but that may be beginning to change.
July 20, 2020, 12:49pm
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Photo: Pixabay / Ashby C Sorensen

On July 6, South Korea watched the man responsible for organizing the world’s largest child sexual exploitation market walk out of the Seoul Penitentiary, unshackled and a free man.

The man, Son Jong-woo, 24, had been sentenced to just 18 months for his stewardship of a veritable digital torture chamber—the same sentence handed to a South Korean man convicted of stealing 18 eggs after starving for more than 10 days.

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To many women in South Korea, Son’s sentence must have seemed like a recurring nightmare. Less than a third of all sex crime convictions in the country resulted in jail time in 2019, and though at least three national laws forbid sex crimes, the Korean legal system consistently offers lenient sentences for grave violations.

Take, for instance, the 235 Korean nationals who were paying members of Son’s website: ultimately only 43 were convicted over their affiliation with the child pornography distributor. The rest were acquitted.

Son’s case raised obvious questions. Why was Son quietly released back into society after Korea rejected an extradition request from the United States that could have seen him spend as much as 15 years behind bars? And why do Korean sex offenders so routinely receive sentences that appear to pale in comparison to the severity of their crimes?

A Culture of Contradiction

Lee Hyeonsook, who heads the organization Tacteen Naeil, which seeks to educate youth on sexual rights, said that excluding extreme cases where injury has visibly been inflicted, Korean society’s instinct is to cast doubt on victims when they raise the alarm.

“In Korea, a sexual violence charge requires violence and threat to be clearly defined, rather than assessing whether consent was granted or not,” said Lee. “In the case of Son Jong-woo, it fits the broader pattern of the court trivializing sex crimes which involve no direct physical violence.”

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Indeed, time and again, convictions for sex crimes have failed to lead to substantial sentencing. According to a 2020 White Paper on Sex Crimes published by the Ministry of Justice, only 26 percent of those charged with sex crimes since 2008 have gone to jail, with most merely paying minor fines to quietly return to normalcy.

The rate plummets even lower for those accused of recording and distributing digital content without consent, charges that cover crimes like upskirt photography, non-consensual recordings, and revenge porn. Of those tried for recording such content, only about 9 percent received jail time. For those tried for distributing the content, less than 2 percent ever saw the inside of a cell.

Park Da-hae, a reporter at The Hankyoreh Newspaper who has covered gender issues since 2018 when the Me Too movement burst onto the scene, said the unrealistic expectation for survivors to “prove” they were violently assaulted is only further exacerbated by the system’s tendency to accommodate for “mitigating factors”—broadly defined under Article 53 of the Criminal Act.

These factors, which serve to lighten many offenders’ sentences, have included being inebriated, having dependents, or, as Son did, issuing a statement of purported repentance.

“I find the lack of checking measures against the discretion of the court to be a problem,” Park said. “There should be a policy to make it mandatory for judges to disclose their rulings in public for accountability.”

Any concern for survivors’ lives, Park added, is “completely excluded” to the extent that, during her reporting, she found herself questioning if the judiciary was even conscious of the harm caused by sexual abuse.

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Tacteen Naeil’s Lee echoed this criticism, arguing that Korea’s treatment of its illicit sex industry reveals double standards that speak to its treatment of sexual offenses.

“Even though pornography and sex work are clearly illegal, they are far too easy to come by,” Lee said. “Though less prevalent today, some businessmen still literally objectify women, ‘gifting’ them to each other.”

Both social and legal efforts to close the gaps in gender equality in Korea have a short history. The country’s first court case on sexual harassment took place only 28 years ago. Ironically, that landmark case was led by a human rights attorney named Park Won-soon, who would go on to become Seoul’s longest serving mayor, only to take his own life earlier this month after a female subordinate filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

But in spite of the judicial system’s apparent unwillingness to take a hard line against sexual assault, women are nevertheless expected to “safeguard their bodies.” The contradiction, Lee said, harkens back to the idea of the eunjangdo, the small silver knife said to have been worn in the chest pocket of women during the Joseon Dynasty should they need to protect their fidelity and virginity.

“These cultural remains are still deeply embedded in Korea’s perception of women today,” she said. “They are not seen as peers, but as sexual objects. Personalities are shrouded, objectification amplified.”

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But pushback is building. Advocates have long called for modifying language in public policy, with their efforts coming to fruition in May when the Act on the Protection of Children and Youth Against Sex Offenses was revised to replace the terms “pornography” and “obscene content” with the term “sexually exploitative content.” The new term, advocates say, doesn’t frame those depicted in such videos as active participants, but rather as victims of sexual exploitation.

Similarly, the Sentencing Commission of the Supreme Court of Korea has begun updating the protocol for digital sex crimes.

While Lee acknowledged the efforts, she noted that “it’s not a cure-all to raise the sentencing; we have to change the understanding and perspectives of the law enforcement.”

A Changing Conversation

According to a recent survey published by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, four in every 10 adult Korean men have paid for sex at least once in their lifetimes.

“To have such little guilty consciences about prostitution is to acquiesce [to] the exchange of female bodies through objectification and dehumanization,” explains Seo Seung Hui, the founding leader of the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center. “It emboldens other forms of violence.”

Just as the shockwaves triggered by the reports of Son Jong-woo’s crimes began to ebb, Korea was struck with another surprise: the apparent suicide of Mayor Park Won-soon amid accusations he had sexually harassed an aide over the span of four years.

As the vehicle carrying Park’s body arrived at Seoul National University Hospital, wails went up from supporters. But amid some people’s mourning, others were giving voice to a deep-seated anger over the realization that his alleged victim’s case would be dropped as there was no longer a living person to indict.

“The day Park Won-soon died, the statement ‘we stand with the victim’ spread like wildfire,” said Park Da-hae, the reporter. “It’s different this time. The strength of women standing in solidarity with each other has never been greater.”

Last week, the team representing Park’s former secretary held a presser to insist that “the absence of the accused does not remove the substance of the incident,” which they described as sexual violence committed by a perpetrator in a “position of power.”

This time, it seems like people are listening. The local government has announced plans to form a body to investigate the woman’s claims against Park, while lawmakers have introduced legislation seeking to change the laws that require cases against alleged sex offenders be dropped in the event of their death.

While the case has set off a wave of finger-pointing and a cacophony of punditry among a divided Korean public, one message from Parks’ accuser appears to be resonating: “I dream of a world where we can just live like a human.”