Guilty of the crime of falling in lovePark Hee-sun carefully lifts the teacup to her lips and takes a few sips before gently laying it down on the coffee table.
“I’m not afraid to tell my story,” Ms. Park insists. Yet for a moment, her dark round eyes give away her hesitation.
It wasn’t easy, especially since this 24-year-old’s definition of love has been denounced by Korean society as tantamount to committing adultery. The law was brutal, the reality harsh. Her experience has shattered her dreams.
Who knew you could go to prison for falling in love?
The tale begins amid the glorious foliage of autumn, in 2001, when Ms. Park met someone she refers to only as “Mr. Kim” at an English language academy in Gangnam, one of southern Seoul’s glitzier districts.
Back then, Ms. Park was a high-spirited college student harboring dreams of becoming a flight attendant. In pursuit of that dream, Ms. Park was focused on boosting her English skills.
At first, Mr. Kim was merely her English tutor at the hagwon. Following some sociable drinking sessions with other classmates, however, the relationship got a bit more involved. Ms. Park, who was fond of her teacher, followed Mr. Kim to a different institute that he opened that December, also in Gangnam.
The two began formally dating in February, when the Siberian winds can pierce even the thickest of coats. Mr. Kim took his sweetie to Mount Namsan late one night after class.
“He held my hand for the first time and confessed the feelings he had for me,” recalls Ms. Park. “I didn’t refuse him because I too was slowly becoming attracted to him.”
Although Ms. Park doesn’t give many specifics, she says there was a 12-year age gap between her and the hagwon boss.
But some details, she can provide. Mr. Kim was by no means a hunk, she says. Nearing middle age, with a receding hairline and a pot belly, he was doing all right financially.
Yet Mr. Kim had a way with women ― in particular with Ms. Park.
“In March I got a call from Mr. Kim in the middle of the night, and he proposed marriage over the phone,” says Ms. Park. “I didn’t answer him right away, though my heart was pounding with joy.”
When discussing Mr. Kim’s marriage proposal, Ms. Park blushes and can’t help smiling. “It was the first time that anybody proposed to me,” she confesses.
During those months of blissful passion, Ms. Park never once suspected that Mr. Kim was legally unavailable for marriage.
“He never mentioned that he had been married for nearly 7 years, and I never saw him wear a wedding ring,” Ms. Park recalls.
The truth was finally revealed by a telephone call from Mr. Kim’s wife.
“I can’t remember the specific date but I was helping Mr. Kim in his office when I received a call,” says Ms. Park. “The woman on the other end only asked for Mr. Kim.”
Ms. Park sensed something was amiss and probed further. Mr. Kim denied being married at first, but was eventually prodded into admitting the awful truth.
From that point on, Ms. Park says, “I tried to break off the relationship but he wouldn’t let me. And I was too much in love with him to build up the courage to just walk away.”
Ms. Park said her married lover informed her that he had been considering divorcing his wife for a long time. In recent months, she was told, the couple had grown accustomed to sleeping in separate rooms. Ever hopeful, Ms. Park trusted him and waited, but progress was glacial.
Every time Ms. Park inquired about the divorce, Mr. Kim barked back that getting a divorce was no simple matter. “In fact he once told me that unless my family was willing to put up a huge sum of money the divorce proceedings would drag on even longer,” Ms. Park says.
Late at night on May 14, when Ms. Park and Mr. Kim were alone in his private office, police officers suddenly burst in and arrested both of them.
“I was handcuffed and forced into a patrol car,” says Ms. Park. Mr. Kim’s wife, his sister-in-law and mother-in-law were all on the scene, and when she walked past them, the three women ganged up and unleashed a torrent of blows. “I was brutally beaten on the head, senselessly” by the women, Ms. Park recalls.
Tears dripped down her cheeks at the police station, where she was seated next to Mr. Kim. Though hurt and confused, she says somehow she never lost faith in him.
Ms. Park was interrogated separately from Mr. Kim. But no matter how rough the interrogator’s questions, Ms. Park denied her affair, according to Mr. Kim’s lawyer.
As she put it, Mr. Kim had told her before the grilling not to disclose any details of their union. But on that night in another room, it was later learned, Mr. Kim poured out everything about the illicit coupling.
Mr. Kim’s wife and family had been collecting evidence against him for months, ever since Mrs. Kim developed a hunch that something was fishy. They were confident about winning in court.
After two days in prison, Ms. Park was released. “They told me I was just too young and that the court had granted me a release,” says Ms. Park.
At the first trial, however, Ms. Park was sentenced to one year in prison, followed by a year of probation; a similar sentence was imposed on Mr. Kim.
The sentence was in line with Korean law, which specifies up to two years behind bars for both parties in adultery. The charges can be dropped, among other reasons, if the plaintiff ―Mrs. Kim, in this case ― agrees to a settlement.
After an appeal, authorities reduced Ms. Park’s sentence to one year of probation. Mr. Kim, who at first refused to settle with his wife, was behind bars for two months. Once he was released, he had to shut his business and work as a low-level English tutor at another institute.
The end of the trial did not lead to a resumption of old alliances. Although Mr. Kim had separated from his wife, he avoided encounters with his young lover.
Though Ms. Park managed to avoid jail time, her act had repercussions that were in some ways more devastating than her short stint in the pokey.
Ms. Park’s father attempted suicide upon learning of his daughter’s affair. Now the family barely speaks of the incident. And Ms. Park’s dream of soaring on steel wings was shattered as well. Because of her probation time, she couldn’t apply to Korean Air or Asiana Airlines. After probation was lifted, she had already passed the age limit of 23 for entry-level stewardesses.
While the Korean government provides no specific figures on adultery, the Park-Kim liaison was by no means an isolated incident. The Supreme Court groups adultery in a broader statistic labeled “dishonest acts.”
Based on this statistic, there were 12,123 requests for divorce by one or both members of a married couple on grounds of “dishonest acts” in 2000. That number rose to 15,401 in 2001.
These data provide only an incomplete picture of the prevalence of adultery in Korean society. The number of adulterers presumably is much higher, for the statistics tell only of cases filed in court. Before pursuing an adultery case, a spouse must first secure a divorce agreement.
For more than half a century Korean society and legal scholars have debated the existence of the adultery law. Before 1953 only women could be punished for adultery and sentenced to jail. That year, the Supreme Court revised the law to apply the penalty to men as well.
Since then, there have been three attempts to abolish the law: in 1990, in 1993 and most recently in October, 2001.
“The law should be abolished because it’s all about money,” argues Lee Jong-moo, an attorney at ABA Law Offices in Seoul. “A divorce suit is all about how to split the money. But adultery law only provides legal grounds for the accusing spouse to suck out more.” At each attempt to revoke the law, the court has upheld it on the grounds that it maintains morality in sexual relations and protects the family unit. The Constitution argues that the law is a means of limiting societal wrongdoings and family disputes.
But Mr. Lee insists that the law obstructs that most basic of governing principles, the right to privacy and happiness, and those who have petitioned for its abolition have cited that argument in each of the three attempts to overturn it.
Mr. Lee also describes the law as impractical. “There are just too many loopholes to actually charge a person on grounds of adultery,” says Mr. Lee. For example, the adultery law applies only if two people have sexual intercourse, which can be proven only by collecting semen. However, to do so the authorities must obtain a court warrant, he explains, leaving time for the accused to simply wash away the evidence.
“Just because you’re naked in bed doesn’t prove that you’ve committed adultery,” says Mr. Kim. “So what’s the use of this law?”
According to Mr. Lee, the law is supposed to help protect a family’s integrity by making spouses too fearful of its punishment to commit adultery. And does this law really prevent society from having immoral sexual relations? he asks. Has this law protected women?
While the attorney argues the law has achieved nothing, Ms. Park thinks it does ― in spite of the trauma she experienced.
“It was the married man who has committed a wrong,” says Ms. Park. “At least the law protected Mr. Kim’s wife. For a married person there comes responsibility to the other spouse. Mr. Kim broke it and he has paid for it.”
“The law is reasonable,” Ms. Park offers. Strangely, she confesses that she still hopes Mr. Kim will come back to her. “You may think it’s odd and I don’t blame you,” she says, sighing. “I’ve just fallen in love with the wrong man.”
by Lee Ho-jeong