ON JAN. 21, 2017, thousands of South Koreans joined the Women’s March at Gangnam, Seoul, calling out, “Women’s rights are human rights!” The march was held all around the world, including Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin, on the same day, to demand better laws regarding women’s rights. In South Korea, numerous efforts have been made since 1898 to securewomen’s rights. However, many laws that are meant to protect women are actually disfavoring them.
Dating violence hidden under the name of love
On Jan. 9, 2017, a 34-year-old woman reported to the police that her boyfriend was threatening her by punching her in the face after she said that she wanted to break up with him. Although the police arrested the assailant at first, he was soon released because the man and the woman were living together at the time, and the case was seen as a simple domestic quarrel. Soon after his release, the man raped his girlfriend and killed her. Dating violence, in this case, was regarded as a simple fight between lovers and was therefore not handled seriously by the police.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, dating violence is the aggressive and controlling behavior in a dating relationship that includes verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or a combination. According to 2015 research by Korea Women’s Hotline, 98.9% of the dating violence victims were female. There have been many efforts by the Korea National Police (KNP) to eradicate dating violence, such as settling a task force team per province that handles cases related to dating violence. For example, south Gyeonggi-do police agency implemented a 24-hour response system for the task force team and thus indicted 1046 people and arrested 82 amongst these for dating violence last year. However, despite such efforts, the number of dating violence victims stays high each year. About 7,700 people are being physically and mentally assaulted by their partners every year. The actual number of victims will exceed the given statistics, however, since many people refuse to report such violence in fear of reprisal.
Although there are numerous dating violence cases in South Korea, these are often classified under “simple assault” cases. Thus, assailants who have threatened or assaulted their partners are not punished unless they have physically injured the other. There is no specific law that punishes acts of threatening or stalking, since those incidents are simply considered as “continuous molestation.” Although dating violence victims can call the contact number 02-1366 to get counseling and advice on how to cope with dating violence, this does not guarantee any legal action against the assailant.
Unlike South Korea, other countries have laws that are specifically related to dating violence. For instance, Clare’s law is a law established in Britain, named after Clare Wood who was murdered by her boyfriend. The law enables the police to disclose requested information about a partner’s previous history of violent acts. In the United States, the Violence Women Act, an act that protects women from any kind of violence, has been providing specific support for victims of dating violence since 1994. When a dating violence case occurs, the assailant is arrested under obligation and is isolated from the victim.
South Korea also needs strong legislation that specifically deals with dating violence. In many cases, dating violence is simply viewed as a quarrel between lovers. However, it should be regarded as a crime that needs social intervention. Also, there should be more laws and institutions that protect victims who suffer from the after effects of such violence.
Who are the true victims of sexual assault?
Although there are laws that punish the sexual assaulters in South Korea, in reality, these laws usually seem to disfavor women. While many countries have similar definitions for sexual assault, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines it as including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical assault of a sexual nature. In the Netherlands, assaulters are punished if they continue to have sexual intercourse even when the victim expresses the will to stop, and most of the countries worldwide acknowledge sexual assaults even though the victim does not physically resist. However, in South Korea, assaulters are punished only when the victims physically resist.
One of the main problems is that many of the sexual assault incidents in South Korea are falsely reported by the mass media. Last year, for instance, there was a sexual assault case regarding Park Yu-chun, a famous South Korean idol singer who, allegedly, had raped a woman. However, without any clear evidence, several news media immediately accused the woman of being a gold digger who wanted to demand settlement money from the celebrity. Meanwhile, Park was portrayed as the victim of the case.
Another problem of sexual assault cases is that many victims are unfairly accused of inciting sexual violence. A case happened in 2016, when a company laid off a woman who had been sexually assaulted by her employees. In response to her dismissal, the victim posted the truth online about how she has been sexually assaulted by her co-workers. However, the company sued her and accused her of defaming the company. The victim was thus unfairly criticized in the media.
One of the reasons why there is such low social awareness towards sexual assaults is that there are no strong laws that punish the sexual assaulters in South Korea. Due to the absence of such laws, the number of sexual assault crimes in South Korea has soared by 279.8% from 2005 to 2014 according to criminal investigation research data by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in 2015. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, an anonymous interviewee, who is currently in charge of the police investigation, commented “The police are strengthening activities of prevention and apprehension to combat crimes against women. In order to absolutely protect women’s physical protection and their rights, the investigative agency should thoroughly investigate each case. Also, a social consensus should be established to punish the assaulters to a maximum level within the law, thus justice should be realized in this direction of punishing them.” In order to protect the victims, the country needs to improve its current laws related to sexual assault. Currently, the penalty for rape is an imprisonment for at least three years in Korea. However, in most cases, attackers demand the victims to come up with a mutual consultation in order to withdraw the complaints. There are cases where victims comply to withdraw their complaints in order to evade being labeled as “sexual assault victims.” Thus, although there are laws to punish the attackers, many of the cases end even before they are brought to the court.
This is a huge contrast to other countries where they have strong laws that indispensably punish the assaulters. In Singapore, for example, the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 includes strong penalties against the perpetrators. When a man rapes a woman, he is imprisoned up to 20 years, and he also has to pay a fine or be caned. The Act also includes punishments against stalking and insults. In Florida, the minimum charge for sexual battery committed on a victim over the age of twelve is punishable by a term of imprisonment for up to 15 years. Depending on each case, the state can increase the charge to a first degree felony, which can result in an imprisonment lasting up to 30 years. Also, if the defendant used a deadly weapon or any other physical force likely to cause a serious bodily injury, the offense becomes punishable with a life sentence.
In 2008, a judge in Texas sentenced James, a criminal who continuously raped three teenagers for two years. As he raped the teenagers for 40 times, he was sentenced 4,000 years in prison─that is, a life imprisonment. Due to such strict laws that punish the assaulters, the number of sexual assault cases has decreased over the past few years in the United States. In 1994, the United States federal government enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which was intended to improve investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. According to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the rate of sexual assault and rape has fallen by 63% since 1993, which thus coincides with the enactment of the VAWA. This is different from the case of South Korea, where the number of sexual assault cases has increased by 1.5 times from 2007 to 2013, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Also, while countless sexual assault cases occur around universities, school facilities for student victims are insufficient in South Korea. A counselor at a sexual violence relief center in one private university explained to Newsis, a news agency in South Korea, that “professional counselors who deal with sexual assault cases are needed because the way professionals deal with such cases is totally different from simple psychological counseling.” Therefore, counselors who professionally deal with sexual assaults should be assigned more extensively in Korean universities.
Abortion laws: placing all blame on women?
Current laws for abortion in South Korea also do not seem to protect women’s rights. Abortion is the ending of pregnancy by artificially removing embryos developed in the uterus prior to childbirth. It is legal only when the pregnancy can worsen the health of the pregnant mother or when it is crucial to eradicate any malignant genetic predispositions. Any other cases are classified as criminal abortion operations.
In South Korea, abortion is only allowed within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The abortion rate of South Korea, in other words the percentage of pregnancies terminated, turns out to be low statistics-wise. According to the results of a survey by The National Birth History, the abortion rate of childbearing women aged 25 and older has been steadily decreasing. The ratio of abortion reached 53% in 1985, 49% in 1994, 40% in 2003 and 17% in 2012. However, such statistics are underestimated. According to research by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2005, there are 0.3 to 0.4 million abortion cases in South Korea. That means that 1 out of 32 women of childbearing age go through abortion. Also, 1 out of 3 of these women suffers from the sense of guilt. This is because abortion is highly controversial and viewed as a “sin” in today’s society.
Although abortion is a serious issue in South Korea, women are considered responsible under the current institutional strategies. According to Article 269 of the Criminal Act, a woman who procures her own miscarriage through the use of drugs or other means shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year or by a fine not exceeding \2 million. During an interview with Gyeong-nam News, Kim Kyung-young (President, Gyeong-nam Women’s Association) said, “It is unfair to blame and punish women for having an abortion, especially in a country that does not aid women who are under situations where they cannot properly nurture their child.” She also added, “The country does not have the right to control women’s body. Self-determination on pregnancy should be respected.”
South Korea currently follows the law that abortion is illegal unless it is due to sexual abuse, incest, in terror for the mother’s life, physical and mental health, and defects in fetuses. Several countries, such as Mongolia, Vietnam, and the United States legalize abortion upon the pregnant woman’s request. The United Kingdom and Japan also consider the socio-economic situations of the women. These countries have institutions that care for women who do not have enough resources to raise their children, thus securing both the women’s health and their right to pursue happiness.
In South Korea, most abortion cases are considered illegal, unlike these countries. Existing legislation related to abortion also show that women’s rights are not being fully guaranteed. What is even worse is that complaints have been made by obstetricians since the advance legislation notice from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. According to the ministry, abortion is now classified as “immoral medical treatment.”
There have been many movements to preserve women’s rights in recent years. However, many existing laws actually seem to disfavor women’s rights. Improvement of laws regarding dating violence, sexual assault, and abortion is needed. But most importantly, it is important to increase awareness in the nation over the importance of women’s rights. The country and the people should realize that women are not the only ones to blame. More just policies to protect women’s rights are needed.