South Korea is widely regarded as a forward-thinking country which has firmly earned its ‘developed country’ status. In recent years its influence in Western pop culture has boomed and its response to COVID has been hailed as a success story and even a model example of a modern, well-functioning state. But, Korea’s record on women’s rights, and particularly sexual assault cases, is shocking by comparison.
Over the last few years, the prevalence of spy cams has been brought to light and the extent of abusive relationships has become part of the discussion as the Me Too movement has grown in Korea: a recent Korean Institute of Criminology report found that 80% of men had physically or psychologically abused a partner. The ‘Nth Room’ (n번방) case of cybersex trafficking on Telegram gained huge attention especially throughout social media as it was revealed that over 260,000 followers subscribed to see the incriminating videos. But the recent Cho Doo-soon case is a prime example of Korea’s shortfalls in regards to women’s rights.
Cho Doo-soon was arrested in 2008 after torturing, raping, and attempting to drown an 8 year old girl whilst she was walking to school. She survived the attack, but was left with life-changing injuries and required multiple surgeries. What is most shocking about this case is that despite being found guilty alongside multiple other charges including another rape conviction, extortion, and assault, Cho was sentenced to only 12 years in prison. The justification for this short sentence was that his age, his ‘weak mental state’, and the fact that he was drunk were all mitigating factors. As he was released from prison on the 12th December 2020, social media yet again erupted with anger at Cho’s release and protests broke out around Seoul and his home in Ansan. Despite countless petitions and demonstrations since Cho’s arrest, there have been few meaningful changes to the law and his sentencing has not been challenged or revised. Even today, he continues to live in the same area as the victim.
What does this mean for the state of women’s rights in South Korea? The World Economic Forum listed South Korea as 101st out of 153 countries in their 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking among the lowest of developed countries. Interestingly, the WEF also predicted that it would take 163 years to close the gender gap in East Asia and the Pacific, longer than any other region and 109 years longer than Western Europe, the frontrunner of the list. This is particularly surprisingly considering the very high educational attainment of Korean women and relatively high employment rates, and the fact that there is a very active women’s rights movement, coupled with even stronger condemnation of criminals involved in specific cases like Cho Doo-soon and Nth Room.
There is evidently an appetite for stronger sentencing and more effective law-making, but the changes are few and far between and often fairly limited in their scope. The fact that drunkenness is a genuine defence is something which clearly needs to be re-evaluated, especially in cases so extreme, and whilst it is important that the judiciary remains independent, it is equally important for the Korean people’s voice to be heard in regards to length of sentencing for crimes of this nature.
The most important lesson to learn from South Korea, in my opinion, is the necessity for female representation in government. Despite record numbers of female representatives being elected in 2020, still only 19% of the legislature is comprised of women and so ranks 118th for female representation in the world. A higher percentage of women in law-making roles could make a huge difference to the passing of laws aiming to tackle inequality and put an end to the laxity of sentencing in sexual assault cases. Considering the momentum within the population for change, it appears that Korea is falling at the hurdle of law-making and judicial practice rather than simply having a lack of motivation to address the issue. It is vital that the rest of the world avoids the same mistakes.
It is also a good opportunity for us to reflect. Korea’s shortfalls in women’s rights demonstrate that it is not just developing countries with a lack of accessibility in education that can neglect women’s rights. Even as supposed leaders of gender equality as part of Western Europe, we must still continue to identify where we are going wrong and what we can improve.
Ella Neve Wilton is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador, currently studying BA International Relations and Korean.