Last year, a 57-year-old habitual drunk identified in Korea's national press as Jo Du-sun dragged an eight-year-old girl on her way to school into a nearby church, where he strangled her unconscious, raped her repeatedly, and in an apparent effort to destroy evidence, permanently damaged the girl's internal organs and destroyed her sphincter, requiring extensive reconstructive surgery.
The horrific details of the case, which went to trial last September, have ignited a national outcry, with South Korea increasingly up in arms over child sexual abuse and the apparent refusal of the country's judges to impose heavy sentences on child rapists and other abusers. The court ruled that the defendant's judgment was impaired at the time because he was drunk. He was given 12 years in prison. There is debate over the sentencing, with some critics say Jo could have been given a life sentence and members of the judiciary saying sentencing guidelines prescribed eight to 15 years.
It is questionable whether Korea's legal system has got the message delivered by public outrage. Despite criticism over the leniency of the sentences in general, and in Jo's case in particular because he was drunk, last week a Pusan district court sentenced a 25-year-old male to just 30 months in prison for having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl whom he lured into his home via an Internet chat room.
Protection agencies say sex crimes against children are rising at the same time law enforcement agencies, let alone the judiciary, appear to be placing very little importance on such behavior. Only 40 percent of 6,000-odd suspects investigated for child abuse were prosecuted, according to local media last year. Of those convicted, nearly half received only fines and 30 percent received suspended sentences.
In recent months, for instance, the wife and daughter of a man convicted of sexually molesting the girl wrote to ask the appeals court to impose a heavier sentence than the two years imposed by the trial court, and a Seoul judge refused to convict a man of sexual assault of a minor for repeatedly having sex with a mentally ill 11-year old girl. The offender got three years in prison after being found guilty instead of "having a sexual relationship with a minor" because the judge believed there was no evidence of force or threat of force. The highest possible sentence had been 15 years. In another case, a girl whose grandfather and uncle had raped her for years received suspended sentences so they could continue to be her caretaker, causing a huge outcry.
In Jo's case, there is a wider debate over South Korea's legal system, which gives judges the prerogative of deciding whether the defendant is in a "weak state of mind or body." Critics of the system say Korea needs separate laws to deal with crimes committed under the influence of heavy drinking, which in Korea can be seriously out of proportion. South Korea's criminal code allows judges to reduce sentences for individuals whose capacity to recognize the consequences their acts has been impaired.
In the west, drunkenness is no legitimate reason for impairment. In Korea, according to the English language edition of the newspaper Hankyoreh, "individuals who commit crimes after losing control due to psychological diseases, feeble-mindedness, abnormal psychological states and mental impairment due to addiction to alcohol and drugs are protected under Article 10."
The bigger concern, in child abuse cases, is that such law enforcement attitudes are emblematic of general public viewpoints toward child abuse even with the demand for stronger sentences and stronger measures to protect children. The World Report on World Violence and Health, produced by the World Health Organization, found that violence against children is endemic in Korea. Two-thirds of all Korean parents said they whipped their children and 45 percent said they had hit, kicked or beaten them, according to the report. When the children themselves were asked, an even higher percentage — 51.3 percent — said they were the victims of severe parental violence.
As an example, an appeals court gave a woman 18 months in jail after she was convicted of beating her stepson to death with a baseball bat after forcing him to stand outside in 5 degree weather for three hours in his underwear. The trial court had imposed a sentence twice as long. A government official was quoted as calling the sentence "impossible to understand."
Abuse is an issue that Korea is having a difficult time to coming to terms with. In Daegu, a city of 2.5 million in the southeastern part of the country, authorities belatedly uncovered a long-running group sexual assault case involving young children which school authorities and local society simply covered up, with the parents and teachers describing it as "exaggerated and non-existent," according to the local press. Although teachers had discovered that sexual harassment was being committed by male students in November 2008, the group sexual assault incident wasn't reported until the following April. Ultimately nearly 100 students were named. And, while attention has focused on the ringleaders, critics say, little was paid to the victims.
"Culturally our society is not interested in boys who have suffered a sexual assault. Children are the same. And because this incident saw boys as both victims and victimizers, parents think that nothing needs to be done," one child protection official told local media. "Children can't spend their whole lives as victimizers or as victims. Living your whole life as a sex criminal, that's not what anybody wants. If kids become victimizers their spirit will someday suddenly leave them, so eventually their interconnected, structural problems have to be solved. And the victims may blame themselves or lose their self-esteem, and to prevent that they need therapy and help. If that aid continues to be offered to them, they can get to the core of the problem."
A blogger under the title Korea Beat in the online publication Asian Correspondent contributed to this report.