The common consensus that can be felt from various comments in news articles involving court cases against sexual crimes in several popular portal websites such as Naver or Daum is this: stricter punishment for those convicted. Public discontent has been growing, peaking during the 2016-2017 South Korean protests, calling for the long necessary update of the jaded Korean judicial system.
The recent sexual harassment cases, involving the chairman of the prominent US film company, Harvey Weinstein, are still under investigation but are becoming clearer that the numerous allegations are more than true. Natural questions arise if the judicial framework provided in South Korea is apt to protect the victims of sexual harassment.
Currently, there are eight laws that prohibit sexual harassment, spanning from rape and involuntary harassment to harassment in the workplace and sexual abuse against children. Then, there are two special criminal laws, which are dubbed as the “special robbery and rape” acts.
However, it has been long since the laws have undergone any revision. Articles 300 to 306, laws involving sexual molestation by force, have been last revised on December 29, 1995 and limits the maximum punishment to five years. Only when the act of harassment was followed by murder of the victim is the punishment increased to at least a minimum of ten years.
The leniency against sexual harassment in Korea has been consistently pointed out. In 2012, according to an article written by The Chosun Ilbo, a news outlet which resides on the right side of the political spectrum, the average punishment for sexual crimes in South Korea was five years and two months in the year 2010. This was contrasted to the ten years and five months criminals in the US had to serve. In fact, a closer look revealed that for sexual harassment on adults, convicts were charged with only three years and two months. Sexual harassment also had a surprisingly high indictment rate of 49.4% in 2010. Half of the convicted got away with it.
However, although the laws still have a lot to be asked for, there are improvements in progress in the judicial system. The current law on sexual harassment has a prosecution period of ten years, and prosecutors have to circumvent the problem by using the “special robbery and rape” acts, which have a longer lifetime period of 15 years. An extension of ten years is allowed if there is scientific evidence of the crime such as DNA samples. A law calling for the complete abolishment of the statute of limitations had been re-submitted to the National Assembly in August 2016, after failing to be passed in due time during the 19th National Assembly. This legislation has yet to be discussed. As for now, the only law without a statute of limitations is that for acts of sexual assault against children under 13 years old.
There has also been an increased awareness of sexual harassment problems in the Korean military. The chronic problems of sexual assault in the military have been underlined again by the suicide in May 2016 and an awful case of a woman being subjected to two consecutive cases of sexual harassment. Although there are more negatives than positives, in a recent interview with Newsis, Member of the Assembly Young-kyo Seo has stated that efforts are being put in to change this.
There are also movements to improve outdated laws. A recent court ruling has declared the legislation limiting the re-employment of convicted sexual harassers unconstitutional as this act prevented all convicts from getting a job for ten years, regardless of the magnitude of the crime. Through this, the current National Assembly hopes to improve the law and restrict employment from six months to 30 years depending on the crime and likelihood of the convict repeating the crime.
The history of laws regarding sexual harassment is not a long one in South Korea. The first law aiming to protect the rights of those sexually harassed was passed only in the mid-1990s. After this, there have been minor tweaks and changes that improved the laws; however, there is still much more to ask for.
If punishments remain to be the simple slaps on the wrist as they are right now in Korea, the problem of increasing cases of sexual harassment will never improve. The number of incidents of sexual violence has escalated from 11,757 in 2005 to 29,863 in 2017 and most of the victims were women in their teens to twenties. But on the other hand, the apprehension rate of assailants was 95.2% in 2014. Now, it is left for the law to make the necessary reforms to protect the victims. It might still be dark, but there are signs of positive changes being made.