A shocking case of child rape has driven the nation into a fury ever since it was revealed by a television documentary program on Sept. 22.
The anonymous 8-year-old primary school student called by the alias Na-young was on her way to school in Ansan south of Seoul last December when a drunken man surnamed Cho took her to a nearby church bathroom.
As the child resisted, the 57-year-old abuser beat her and strangled her. He also repeatedly submerged her in the toilet until she lost consciousness.
During the following hour, Cho not only sexually assaulted Na-young several times but also caused a rupture in her intestines by attempting to remove his semen.
The aggressor then left the unconscious victim on the floor to flee to his home but was caught within hours, having left biological evidence all over on the scene and on himself.
Na-young, found near death by her parents, was taken to a hospital but was permanently deprived of her normal sexual functions despite an eight-hour surgery. She was also forced to have an artificial sack to replace her missing organs.
Cho, who was sentenced to a 12-year jail term in the two lower courts, appealed for a commutation but the Supreme Court last month confirmed his term by upholding the high court`s ruling.
Cho, when released from jail, is to wear a traceable electronic anklet for seven years and have his personal information open for public reference for five years, said court officials.
Cho was a repeat offender, having been sentenced back in 1983 to three years in jail for rape and also to seven years and four months for non-sexual charges such as the use of violence. He was under no restriction or supervision, despite his past crimes.
Citizens have raged over the brutality of the crime and what seemed too light a sentence. In a major online portal, tens of thousands of netizens joined a campaign to censure the aggressor and demand that he receive a heavier punishment.
Some even requested that Cho be retried in court, blaming the court for being lenient, especially as the ruling judged him to be under the influence of alcohol.
Others criticized the prosecution for assenting to the court ruling and not making an appeal. Under criminal procedure law, a higher court may not issue a heavier sentence than the lower court unless the prosecutor appeals.
As the crime was widely publicized in the media and public fury sharply soared, experts, lawmakers and high-ranking government officials also spoke out.
"Though it may be controversial to raise any objection to the court`s legal judgment, I nevertheless feel wretched as president that such a crime should have occurred," said President Lee Myung-bak during a Cabinet meeting last Thursday. "I feel it appropriate that such grave felons should be separated from society for the rest of their lives."
The president also urged the Gender Equality Ministry, the Justice Ministry and other government offices to work together to produce a total plan to prevent such inhumane crimes.
The Justice Ministry closely followed the president`s statement in vowing to ensure that Cho serve his maximum sentence.
The ministry also declared that it would make a proposal to the Supreme Court to raise the minimum criminal sentence for those who sexually abuse children, according to officials.
The National Assembly also swarmed over the related discussion.
Ahn Sang-soo, floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party suggested that the present criminal law, which limits the maximum jail sentence of sexual crimes crimes, should be revised.
Some lawmakers requested that the introduction of chemical castration and others demanded that the genetic database, especially on sexual abusers against children, be widely expanded.
Some U.S. states and several European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, have adopted or are planning to adopt physical or chemical castration sentences on repeated sexual offenders against children.
However, the official stance of the court and the prosecution is that the confirmed sentence, though it may not conform with society`s legal common sense, was the best that could be done.
"We felt it futile to appeal as 12 years was close to a maximum sentence, as the law states 15 years as the maximum possible terminable sentence to be given on a single crime," said a spokesperson for the Supreme Prosecutor`s Office.
The chief justice also spoke out on the issue.
"It is inappropriate to argue the final ruling handed down by the court," said Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon yesterday in an interview with a local newspaper. "The judicature should not be swayed by public opinion, or it will lose its credibility."
He emphasized that the issue was to be dealt with in a long-term perspective and that it required further in-depth social discussion.
"Upon this (Na-young) case, we have come to realize the possiblegap between the criminal punishment as stated by the law and the legal common sense of the general public," he said.
Despite the ongoing discussions and campaigns, it is generally accepted that there is little that can be done to further punish Cho. A large part of the distressed public and the legal circles thus turned to question the justice of the present legal systems.
The number of sexual abuse victims under the age of 6 has exceeded 150 every year since 2006, according to the National Police Agency.
Among the 5,948 suspects who were investigated on charges of sexual abuses against children from January 2007 to July this year, 2,501 or were not prosecuted, according to the Justice Ministry data.
Even among those who were prosecuted, only 0.4 percent were handed down a life sentence whereas more than 42 percent were fined and 30.5 percent received a suspended term, according to the Health Ministry data.
"Not only could the prosecutor and the court have attempted further to hand down a heavier punishment on the sexual abuser, our legal system itself needs fundamental revision regarding the issue," said Cho Kuk, criminal law professor at Seoul National University and member of the Supreme Court committee on criminal punishment guidelines.
By Bae Hyun-jung