The Korea Herald


Is Korea too soft on sex crimes?

By 배지숙

Published : July 8, 2011 - 20:25

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Assailants given light penalties while victims fight trauma, prejudice

On May 21, a group of Korea University medical school students went on a trip to suburban Seoul. It should have been fun and refreshing.

However, for one 24-year-old female student, it turned into a nightmare. During a party at a retreat, three male classmates induced her into drinking drugged liquor, until she became unconscious, and then sexually harrassed her. They even took photos and filmed it.

To make matters worse for the victim, although the case has been reported and the perpetrators arrested, the university has since been hesitant in punishing them. So far there have only been meetings over the case, involving legal experts and professors, which have gone nowhere.

“A sexual assault is a serious crime but what action we take may change the lives of the male students for good. If we expel them from the school, they may never work as doctors. So, we are trying to be prudent about the case,” an official familiar with the case told local media. As the university has dragged its feet in punishing the students, the victim has reportedly had to take some classes and exams in the same classrooms attended by the three attackers.

The news triggered public outrage. In cyberspace, people vented anger at the university’s lukewarm response and went further, criticizing Korea’s leniency toward sex criminals and disregard of victims.

According to court rulings on sex offenders last year analyzed by Rep. Woo Yoon-keun of the Democratic Party, the acquittal rate stood at 2.3 percent, significantly higher than the overall average of 1.4 percent. Of convicted sex offenders, only 24 percent got jail terms, 33 percent were placed on probation and 14.3 percent were fined.

According to another report by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, out of 18,157 sexual attacks reported in 2009, only 41.1 percent progressed to the stage of indictment by the prosecution. The figure is a steep drop from 50.3 percent in 1999. “The decrease in indictment shows that the court and the prosecution have become more lenient on sexual attackers,” the report said.

Even when sex offenders are indicted and jailed, they are placed under loose control after serving time: Former sexual assailants often manage to live their lives as they did before they were jailed.

According to Education Ministry data submitted to Rep. Cho Jeon-hyuk of the Grand National Party last September, a total of 45 teachers committed sex crimes including sexual harassment of minors and buying sex.

Only 21 of them were given a heavy penalty that kept them from classrooms for up to five years. The others received a mild punishment such as a pay cut or short-term suspension. “They still teach in classrooms. Some of them are suspected of having repeated sex crimes,” he said.

On the other side of the coin, life after sexual assaults is harsh for victims. Their suffering may even last a lifetime.

Victims are often required to explain the situation over and over again to the police, prosecutors and judges, and as specifically as possible, sometimes in the presence of suspects. In some cases, they are advised to seek a settlement rather than going to court.

The provision that regards sex crimes as an offense subject to complaint, which means that attackers will not be prosecuted unless victims file charges, results many crimes going unpunished. According to a report by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs, only 6 to 8 percent of sex crimes are reported to the police, with most victims giving up on making a report because they are afraid of confronting their assailants again and testifying about their experiences.

Lee Eun-sang, head of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, said the provision should be revised to require the prosecution and police to take up all reported sex crimes regardless of whether victims press charges. The Supreme Court recently issued a guideline to judges, making it more difficult for them to extenuate circumstances in sentencing sex criminals.

Getting tough on leniency might not be enough, considering that victims struggle to overcome trauma for a much longer time than the jail terms given to their attackers, she said.

Even more serious to victims is a deep-rooted prejudice that prompts them into hiding their damage and avoiding legal suits. Victims fall victim again to a wild speculation that they must have offered some excuses for sexual assaults.

In the Korea University case, an Internet user, who claimed to be one of the assailants, posted online that it was the female student who initiated the incident because she pulled up her T-shirt to show her belly button and entice them. His posting hasn’t been verified but may be the tip of a distorted perception of sexual assault victims.

“It is a typical and nonsensical excuse for sexual assailants to claim that they lacked ability to make rational decisions at the time of attack because they were under the influence of alcohol, while blaming the woman for igniting a ‘fire,’” Kim Hyun-ik, a graduate of Korea University medical school, said on his Twitter. Kim has been leading a campaign to expel the students from the school.

Earlier in June, a 28-year-old woman killed herself after testifying in court. She left a suicide note saying that she was mortified by the judge’s hurtful comments.

According to prosecutors and her family, the woman took her 24-year-old rapist to court. At the witness stand, she endured the hardship of confronting her rapist and testifying in his presence. However, the judge suggested she settle the case out of court instead of seeking punishment through the trial.

Furthermore, the judge repeatedly mentioned her past job as a karaoke hostess. She wrote on her suicide note: “Having worked as a hostess in the past doesn’t mean one deserves to be raped.”

Lee Eun-sang said that attitudes had to change.

“It is obviously discrimination against women to ignore hard evidence of rape and say a woman may have enticed her rapist. It’s time we set the records straight,” Lee said.

“The government should strengthen human rights education with a focus on sex violence victims,” she added.

By Bae Ji-sook (