One of the most infamous court rulings in Korea’s history involves a case in 1964 where a woman bit off the tongue of a rapist who forcefully kissed her. The 18-year-old victim was punished for inflicting injury, while the rapist got off scot-free. Although the victim’s right to defend herself was the main issue, the ruling offered a glimpse into the skewed judicial attitudes toward sex crimes in Korea. The presiding judge was quoted as saying the victim “maimed a young man in a bid to protect her chastity” and added that the assailant followed the victim to the scene of the crime “out of curiosity about the opposite sex.” He went even further by accusing the victim of being “morally responsible for inciting a desire to kiss her.” The judge ended up turning the victim into a criminal.
Decades later, judges in Korea are now expected to base their rulings on the right to self-determination and gender sensitivity. But many judges in this country still have a soft spot for perpetrators of sex crimes. First-time offenders usually have their sentences whittled down, while those to repent are allowed to walk away with barely a slap on the wrist. Rapists are given suspended sentences if they have a wife and children to feed, while young sex offenders have their sentences lowered considering their “bright futures.” Victims are often advised to settle out of court with their assailants, and perpetrators who donate money to rape-counseling centers are given lighter sentences. Yet sex offenders have the highest rate of repeat offenses in Korea. Perhaps the leniency shown by judges has something to do with this unnerving statistic.
Penalties against sex crimes continue to grow tougher. Raping a minor or filming sexual acts can lead to at least five years in prison or a life sentence. Peeping Toms in public places now face up to five years behind bars. On paper, Korea has become about as tough on sex crimes as the U.S. But all of this changes once the laws are filtered through the judge’s chambers. In 2018, 48.9 percent of sex offenders who targeted minors ended up having their sentences suspended and faced no jail time, while 14.4 percent were only fined.
On Monday, a Korean court rejected a request by U.S. authorities to extradite Son Jung-woo, a man who ran one of the world’s largest child-porn websites on the dark web. Here he was sentenced to just 18 months in prison for his offenses and has now released after serving his time, raising a public outcry. Son posted videos on his website showing even infants being raped, but the judge whittled down the 24-year-old’s sentence taking note of his “poor upbringing” and his “dependent family members.” A marriage certificate Son submitted to the court two weeks before the ruling is suspected of being forged. A U.S. court would probably have given him a life sentence or minimum 30 years in the slammer for the same offense.
Research has shown that some child victims of sexual assault suffer damage to their hippocampus, which controls memory and emotions. Sex crimes against children are no different than murder, and the damage is not limited to the victim but reverberates across society. The Hwaseong serial killer Lee Chun-jae raped his victims before murdering them. We must no longer tolerate such light sentences for sexual predators.
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