A recent child rape case is not only shocking Korean society, but also compelling it to look back at its past negligence regarding the seriousness of sexual violence.
Last month, a television documentary broadcast the case of an eight-year-old child - alias Na-young. The girl was raped by a 57-year-old man named Cho Doo-soon, who had a record of sexual abuse.
His sexual and physical abuse caused an irreversible intestine rupture, meaning Na-young will have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
The Supreme Court gave the offender a 12-year jail sentence, plus seven years of wearing an electronic anklet, a punishment which the public largely criticized as too lenient.
Angry netizens swarmed on the internet, criticizing the prosecution and the court for the actions taken in the brutal case.
After the initial anger came a public feeling that Korean society in general, along with the courts, prosecution and police, has been insensitive to sexual abuse.
The court explained itself, citing the limitations imposed by the present legal system.
"Though we understand the public sentiment may resent the given sentence, the 12-year term was close to the heaviest punishment that could be given under the present law," said a court official after the Supreme Court ruling last month.
Jail sentences of 10-15 years are often given to murderers, and in this context it may not be seen as a particularly light sentence, he said.
The chief justice, aware of the growing public distrust toward the fairness of the court trial, also spoke out in defense of judges.
"It is inappropriate to argue about the final ruling handed down by the court," said Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon last week. "The judicial system 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 public discussion.
Though the court, since Cho`s case, has handed down heavier sentences to sex offenders, the public still largely accuses the judicial system of being lenient.
"Recently, some rapists were sentenced to terms of 12 years or more in cases that would conventionally have resulted in a lighter sentence of 7-10 years," said a Seoul court judge who asked to remain anonymous.
"The judges seem to be pressured by the public`s attention, anger and expectations," he said.
In the past, convicted rapists were often jailed for far less than 7-10 years, and the sentences were often suspended.
The court`s change of heart, though long delayed and possibly temporary, should nevertheless be seen as a positive sign, observers said.
"The judiciary is one of the most conservative groups in Korean society and this is often reflected in the trials that cover sexual offenses," said an official of the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center.
"Korean judges, especially in the past, tended to be harsh toward sexual violence victims, affected by the traditional value of chastity."
The special law on sexual violence, since its introduction in 1994, has been revised more than 10 times, but is largely criticized for failing to embrace the social needs, as related discussions were never really open to the public.
The prosecution and the police also face pressure to change in their attitudes toward sexual violence cases.
The prosecution, regarding the Na-young case, was blamed for not making an appeal after the lower court`s ruling, which made it impossible for the higher courts to sentence to offender to a term any heavier than the original 12 years.
"It was not just in this case that the prosecution accepted the limitations of the present criminal law and shunned an appeal to the higher court," said the official at the relief center.
"It has become the general consensus among sex crime victims and their families that lawsuits simply elongate the painful memory of the crime and only result in a relatively light punishment."
The police, having initial access to both the offender and the victim, are also accused of intimidating victims due to prejudices and careless attitudes in dealing with the sensitive issue of sexual abuse.
"I often felt that the police were insensible to the rampant cases of sexual violence that occur in the one-room apartment areas around schools," said a 28-year-old woman who asked only to be identified by her surname Seo.
She, who once lived in a one-room apartment nearby her university in North Chungcheong Province, had a friend attacked and sexually abused by intruders, who were possibly students of the same school.
"We, of course, asked the police to step in, track down the suspects and take certain measures," she said. "Some of them, however, seemed to think of the incident as a relatively casual event, that occurs every now and then among young people."
One should not generalize, but it is hard to deny that the Korean society in general, especially conservative elderly citizens and government officials, tend to regard sexual violence lightly, she also said.
"Our legal system itself needs fundamental revision regarding the punishment of the sex offenders," said Cho Kuk, criminal law professor at Seoul National University and member of the Supreme Court committee on criminal punishment guidelines.
Even when such changes are achieved, Korea will not clear itself from the disgrace of being behind other countries in terms of measures against sexual crimes unless the entire society wakes up to the shock of the recent cases and truly resets its views on such crimes, said the KSVRC official.
By Bae Hyun-jung