September 09, 2009 12:44
In 1955, a man named Park In-soo, who had bedded 70 wealthy women by pretending to be a former navy captain, was arrested after two of the women filed charges against him. "Among the women I met, only one, a worker at a beauty salon, was a virgin," Park said at his trial. He was found not guilty of the crime of intercourse under promise of marriage. The presiding judge said the purpose of that law was to protect chastity. But, apparently due to mounting criticism that the ruling could stoke a culture of sexual promiscuity, judges in the second and third trials sentenced Park to one year in prison.
Article 304 of the Criminal Code stipulates, "Individuals who have sexual relations with a woman with no history of lewd behavior under the promise of marriage or by using other deceptive approaches will be given a maximum two year prison term or a penalty of up to W5 million" (US$1=W1,233). But even in ancient times, there were no laws that limited sexual relations between two unmarried people. Only adultery faced stiff penalties, with the offense entailing 90 strikes with a club during the Chosun period. The Dutch explorer Hendrik Hamel, who was shipwrecked in Jeju Island in the 17th century, wrote, "People caught committing adultery would have limestone painted on their faces as they were paraded around the village with their ears tied together, while small drums tied to their backs were beaten."
The crime of sex under promise of marriage traces its origin to West Germany. In 1953, Korea revised its criminal laws and included this one, which the Japanese had thrown out during their legal reform. West Germany scrapped that law in 1969. Around the world today, some U.S. states, Turkey, Cuba and Romania are the only places that punish people for having sex under the promise of marriage. Each year, around 800 violations of that law are put to trial in Korea, but only 3 percent of them lead to indictments. The only precedents of indictments were cases where a married man had sex with a woman by pretending to be single or where a man who lived with one woman ended up marrying another. The reason is because of the difficulty in proving whether a man had genuinely intended to marry a woman or not.
There were calls for abolition of the law when Korea's criminal laws were revised in 1995, but it was maintained under the reasoning that women need to be protected. The Constitutional Court reviewed the legitimacy of the law in 2002, and seven out of nine judges ruled it was constitutional. Now, seven years later, the law has once again been placed for review before the court.
A man indicted for violating the law filed a petition with the court, which will review in a public proceeding on Thursday. This time, the Ministry of Gender Equality has joined the fray, saying the law "discriminates against women by emphasizing chastity" and is therefore unconstitutional. But the Justice Ministry disagrees, saying the law remains constitutionally sound.
There are those who feel that the state should have no business poking its nose into private matters involving individual citizens, but others say the sexual awareness of Koreans needs to mature further until the law can be scrapped. The Constitutional Court's decision may change with the times. In 1990, six out of nine judges ruled in favor of maintaining adultery as a crime, and in 2001 eight to one. But last year, the law barely survived by a majority of five to four. It remains to be seen what decision will be reached by the Constitutional Court this time, with a different lineup of judges from seven years ago.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Hong-jin
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