Adultery Law: A Necessary Evil?
Korea Herald, March 7, 2005
By Shin Hae-in
Less than a couple of centuries ago, it was natural for
Korean men to have more than one wife and women to accept polygamy since they
had to depend on their husbands. In recognition of an increasing awareness of
women’s rights, several National Assembly lawmakers came up with a bill in
1951 to provide for lawsuits on adultery, although the main purpose was to
eradicate polygamy and establish gender equality.
Despite fierce opposition from conservative men, the bill
was approved by parliament on April 1953, and was enacted in the criminal law
the following year. Now, though the law played a major role in helping women
achieve equality in marriage, many are questioning whether it is still
necessary, and whether the government has the right to meddle in personal
Last month, a debate on the need for the law swept the
nation once again when a well-known actress was arrested for adultery with a
Because the details were disclosed publicly, the actress
claimed her life had been ruined. “I admit what I have done is bad. But how
can I learn my lesson and live on now that the society has marked me red for
the rest of my life?” the actress said in an interview.
Immediately after the case broke, the Web site naver.com
asked 21,000 nationwide Internet users their thoughts, and up to 54 percent
answered that the adultery law should be repealed while 46 percent said it
should be kept.
Yet, only a few years back, an overwhelming majority of
the public had favored keeping the law, asserting that preserving monogamy was
more important than personal privacy, and that the law was the last resort for
wives who suffer because of their husbands’ extra marital affairs.
The conservative Constitu-tional Court also declared the
law constitutional when it was appealed in 1990 and 2001, asserting that
upholding monogamy was a priority for personal rights.
In 2001, more than 63 percent of the 2,500 adults
nationwide wanted the law to stay while only 30 favored repeal, according to
the Korean Association of Women’s Studies research. The rest answered that
that law should be abolished eventually, but now was not the right time.
The research showed a clear divide between the
conservatives and the progressives of the nation, with those in favor of the
law showing right wing characteristics, while the latter showed the opposite.
Those who wanted the law to stay answered that they
regarded themselves to be conservative, and most of them were over 50 years
old, married and had grown up in rural regions.
On the other hand, the group which regarded the law
unnecessary had the opposite characteristics—regarding themselves as
progressives, aged 20 to 30, unmarried and grew up in the city.
“Various polls and statistics show that the adultery
law would definitely be abolished within the next century at the latest,”
said Yoo Hyun-jin of Korean Womenlink, a women’s rights organization. “As
time passes, more will agree that preserving personal rights is more important
than keeping the social structure, and adultery is not a concept to be banned
by the law.”
Yoo said that the adultery law did more bad than good to
women when reviewed closely and actually worked as a huge obstacle to women
achieving their own identity.
According to National Police Agency statistics, more than
40 percent of adultery charges were initiated by husbands against their wives
last year, showing that the law no longer protected solely women.
While more men sue their wives, the circumstances remain
harder for women because the law stipulates that the suit can only proceed
when filed together with divorce. Thus, housewives who are financially
dependent on their husbands have a hard time bringing a suit while husbands
can sue wives and file for divorce much more easily.
“The adultery law was established based on the concept
that women were subordinate to men. If the situation has changed, and the law
does not protect women anymore, it is only right for it to be abolished,”
Professor Choi Byung-moon of Sangji University agreed
with Yoo, saying that Korea was retrogressing from the international
understanding that draws a line between morals and law by no longer punishing
people for their immoral deeds.
“Korea and China are among the few nations that still
have the adultery law,” said Choi. “I say it is time for Korea to repeal
the law and come to an understanding that moral matters should always be left
Despite the international and domestic moves toward
repeal, strong assertions remain that the law is needed to protect women, with
actual cases providing proof.
On Web sites for divorce consultations, many women seek
advice on adultery, each expressing frustration and looking for a legal
“My husband promised me he would end his affair, but I
found out recently that he had been keeping up his relationship with that
woman for the past three years, and even turned all his property to her
possession,” said a 43-year-old housewife on the Web site “Ihon Clinic,”
set up by lawyers specializing in divorce suits.
“He now openly admits his relationship with her and
asks me to divorce him. If it had not been for the adultery law, I would have
had to divorce him and walk away with nothing. All the effort I put into him
and the children, and this is what I get in return,” she added.
Lawyer Choi Soon-young says that, in reality, the
adultery law is still a necessary evil for society.
“See, many of those who want the law abolished, are
young and unmarried people who do not understand what the reality is for older
and married women,” she said. “For those women it was natural not to have
a career and devote themselves to their husbands, kids and saving money.
“Right now, it is them who need the law, not the
younger generation who would without doubt enjoy much more gender equality
than these women. It may be right to get rid of the law after the younger
women become the wives, but now is definitely not the time.”