Victims of sex abuse find scant legal recourse
“I mentioned the name of the assailant when I accused him of sexually harassing me in a post I wrote online and he sued me twice for character defamation,” said Sin Hui-ju, a film director and member of an association of female artists in Korea. “In the end, the court ruled that I wouldn’t be indicted, but I was investigated by authorities for a year and three months as a suspect, and this affected me so much I had to take antidepressants.”
The Criminal Act states that a “person who defames another by publicly alleging facts shall be punished by imprisonment or imprisonment without prison labor for not more than two years or by a fine not exceeding 5 million won ($4,624).”
Instances of victims being sued by their assailants for character defamation are not uncommon here.
“I revealed on a social media platform that my supervisor at work sexually harassed me,” said a woman who works as an illustrator in Korea. “The supervisor sued me for character defamation. I was investigated by police and suffered a panic disorder for six months.”
The current laws are discouraging some victims from coming forward, said some experts.
“In many cases I’ve come across, victims couldn’t talk freely about what happened to them because of the law regarding character defamation,” said Lee Mi-kyung, the director of Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center in western Seoul. “The laws need to change to protect victims more.”
In one case, an actress in training reported to police she had been sexually harassed by a TV drama director, but simply received a text message from the police that said, “An act of indecent conduct that does not involve a physical violation or verbal threat is difficult to punish by law.”
Article 298 of the Criminal Act states that a “person who, through violence or intimidation, commits an indecent act on another shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or by a fine not exceeding 15 million won.”
Korea’s Criminal Act definition of rape as a “means of violence or intimidation, [by which one] has sexual intercourse with another” was criticized at the meeting of United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in Geneva last month. The committee’s vice chair, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, is reported to have said that Korea’s law defines rape in a limited way.
Even after a victim has brought his or her case to court, often times he or she is badgered by the suspects’ lawyers to settle out of court.
“I was sexually harassed by a supervisor repeatedly during work dinners for months,” said one 30-year-old woman, who added that he repeatedly asked her to dance with him in karaoke bars and touched her thighs and waist. She requested a meeting with the company’s CEO, in which she asked for disciplinary action against her boss. “The CEO said, ‘I think you’re being too sensitive.’ He said this is all part of becoming a more well-rounded person in society.”
After the meeting, the woman decided to sue her boss. As she went through the legal process, her boss’ lawyer called her every day, asking her to settle out of court. “The lawyer said, ‘Since the case is not about rape, but indecent conduct, why don’t we settle out of court?’” she said. “The lawyer told me that my boss is likely going to be fined by the court, so why not reach a settlement out of court.”
She said she ended up receiving 3 million won as a settlement and withdrew her case. But after this, she said she had to endure gossip about her at her work place, as people said she brought up the case just to get money out of it.
“The Me Too movement in Korea could die out if culprits are not punished seriously,” Lee said. “It’s already not an easy thing for the victims to gather the courage to report the cases.”
According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, an estimate of 1.9 percent of victims of sexual crime actually report their cases to authorities. Of the 27,248 sexual crime cases in 2016, suspects of 11,401 cases were indicted, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
And many of these indictments do not lead to prison sentences.
From 2014 to 2016, only 22 percent of suspects indicted for sexual assault were given prison sentences in their first trials, according to the National Court Administration. Most, or 74 percent, were simply fined instead.
“Among sexual crime cases, most concern indecent acts by compulsion,” said Bae Soo-jin, a laywer. “And most of these suspects end up being fined [instead of serving time].”
The amount of the fines, some experts said, needs to be raised as well.
“In the case of a civil case on rape, the culprit could be fined from 50 million won to 100 million won,” said Kwon Jae-ryeon, a lawyer. “The amount is excessively low compared to the amount of pain the victim has to live with for the rest of his or her life.”
The Korean Me Too movement emerged in Korea on Jan. 26 after prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon revealed that she was sexually harassed by a senior prosecutor in 2010. The movement’s focus shifted to the arts industry as several allegations about prominent artists including director Lee Yoon-taek, poet Ko Un, cartoonist Park Jae-dong and photographer Bae Bien-u were made public.
Some experts abroad assessed the movement in Korea to be a step in the right direction.
“The Me Too movement is a global revolution,” said Guy Sorman, CEO of France-Amerique magazine, in an e-mail interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “Like all revolutions, it started as a local anecdote before spreading around the world like fire. This does not happen by accident: it reveals a deep flaw in our so-called developed societies, the inferior status of women.”
He added, “I am afraid, however, that the Me Too movement is not yet taken seriously by many men, in all nations, who think they have a right to exploit women, at home, at work, in the street: for sure, many Korean men do not understand that they are oppressors. The Me Too movement is for them a timely wake up call. In the case of South Korea, this revolution had to come from abroad, because Korean men by themselves would not perceive the problem and most women dare not speak. … What we see is only the beginning.”
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