Less than a couple of centuries ago, it was natural for Korean men to have more than one wife and women to accept polygamy since they had to depend on their husbands.
In recognition of an increasing awareness of women’s rights, several National Assembly lawmakers came up with a bill in 1951 to provide for lawsuits on adultery, although the main purpose was to eradicate polygamy and establish gender equality.
Despite fierce opposition from conservative men, the bill was approved by parliament on April 1953, and was enacted in the criminal law the following year. Now, though the law played a major role in helping women achieve equality in marriage, many are questioning whether it is still necessary, and whether the government has the right to meddle in personal matters.
Last month, a debate on the need for the law swept the nation once again when a well-known actress was arrested for adultery with a married man.
Because the details were disclosed publicly, the actress claimed her life had been ruined. “I admit what I have done is bad. But how can I learn my lesson and live on now that the society has marked me red for the rest of my life?” the actress said in an interview.
Immediately after the case broke, the Web site naver.com asked 21,000 nationwide Internet users their thoughts, and up to 54 percent answered that the adultery law should be repealed while 46 percent said it should be kept.
Yet, only a few years back, an overwhelming majority of the public had favored keeping the law, asserting that preserving monogamy was more important than personal privacy, and that the law was the last resort for wives who suffer because of their husbands’ extra marital affairs.
The conservative Constitu-tional Court also declared the law constitutional when it was appealed in 1990 and 2001, asserting that upholding monogamy was a priority for personal rights.
In 2001, more than 63 percent of the 2,500 adults nationwide wanted the law to stay while only 30 favored repeal, according to the Korean Association of Women’s Studies research. The rest answered that that law should be abolished eventually, but now was not the right time.
The research showed a clear divide between the conservatives and the progressives of the nation, with those in favor of the law showing right wing characteristics, while the latter showed the opposite.
Those who wanted the law to stay answered that they regarded themselves to be conservative, and most of them were over 50 years old, married and had grown up in rural regions.
On the other hand, the group which regarded the law unnecessary had the opposite characteristics – regarding themselves as progressives, aged 20 to 30, unmarried and grew up in the city.
“Various polls and statistics show that the adultery law would definitely be abolished within the next century at the latest,” said Yoo Hyun-jin of Korean Womenlink, a women’s rights organization. “As time passes, more will agree that preserving personal rights is more important than keeping the social structure, and adultery is not a concept to be banned by the law.”
Yoo said that the adultery law did more bad than good to women when reviewed closely and actually worked as a huge obstacle to women achieving their own identity.
According to National Police Agency statistics, more than 40 percent of adultery charges were initiated by husbands against their wives last year, showing that the law no longer protected solely women.
While more men sue their wives, the circumstances remain harder for women because the law stipulates that the suit can only proceed when filed together with divorce. Thus, housewives who are financially dependent on their husbands have a hard time bringing a suit while husbands can sue wives and file for divorce much more easily.
“The adultery law was established based on the concept that women were subordinate to men. If the situation has changed, and the law does not protect women anymore, it is only right for it to be abolished,” said Yoo.
Professor Choi Byung-moon of Sangji University agreed with Yoo, saying that Korea was retrogressing from the international understanding that draws a line between morals and law by no longer punishing people for their immoral deeds.
“Korea and China are among the few nations that still have the adultery law,” said Choi. “I say it is time for Korea to repeal the law and come to an understanding that moral matters should always be left to individuals.”
Despite the international and domestic moves toward repeal, strong assertions remain that the law is needed to protect women, with actual cases providing proof.
On Web sites for divorce consultations, many women seek advice on adultery, each expressing frustration and looking for a legal solution.
“My husband promised me he would end his affair, but I found out recently that he had been keeping up his relationship with that woman for the past three years, and even turned all his property to her possession,” said a 43-year-old housewife on the Web site “Ihon Clinic,” set up by lawyers specializing in divorce suits.
“He now openly admits his relationship with her and asks me to divorce him. If it had not been for the adultery law, I would have had to divorce him and walk away with nothing. All the effort I put into him and the children, and this is what I get in return,” she added.
In Western countries, the wife would be protected not by an Adultery law, but by Divorce law. In the case of a wife with children who has been cheated on, she would receive substantial compensation from the husband. If the husband move assets to the girlfriend as above, the law would consider that transaction void and the money would have to be returned. Custody of the children would almost certainly be given to the wife. Any assets would be split (home, car, etc) and a monthly payment to the wife to help with the children would be taken out of the husbands wages.
There would be no criminal charges against the husband. Being an ungrateful cheating arsehole is not a crime.
Lawyer Choi Soon-young says that, in reality, the adultery law is still a necessary evil for society.
“See, many of those who want the law abolished, are young and unmarried people who do not understand what the reality is for older and married women,” she said. “For those women it was natural not to have a career and devote themselves to their husbands, kids and saving money.
“Right now, it is them who need the law, not the younger generation who would without doubt enjoy much more gender equality than these women. It may be right to get rid of the law after the younger women become the wives, but now is definitely not the time.”
By Shin Hae-in