SEOUL - South Korea’s constitutional court on Thursday scrapped the nation’s criminal anti-adultery law, saying it infringed upon personal freedom.
Created in 1953, the law allowed for jail terms of up to two years for those found to have knowingly engaged in an extramarital affair if punishment was sought by the spouse. The statute was designed to provide women with legal support at a time when few were sufficiently financially independent to have the option of leaving their cheating husbands and divorce was stigmatized.
Nearly 53,000 South Koreans have been indicted and more than 35,000 jailed for marital infidelity since 1985, the start of electronic record keeping, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Last year 892 were charged but none were imprisoned. Legal experts say plaintiffs in recent years have preferred to reach a financial settlement. Shares of South Korean condom maker Unidus Corp. surged after the ruling, hitting the 15% daily gain limit on the local index.
“It’s realistically impossible that all unethical acts face criminal justice,” said Park Han-chul, the presiding justice at the court in reading out the verdict. Seven of the nine judges including Justice Park ruled in favor of the repeal, while two, including Lee Jung-mi, the court’s sole female judge, opposed.
Until Thursday’s ruling, which is effective immediately, South Korea was one of a few non-Muslim countries that regularly practiced criminal prosecution of adultery.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan and the Philippines treat marital infidelity as a crime. Twenty U.S. states allow civil or criminal prosecution for extramarital affairs but enforcement is rare, says Melissa Murray, a professor at Berkeley Law, University of California.
The South Korean court’s decision may anger some social conservatives who believe the law helped protect traditional family values. In a poll of 2,000 adults by state-run Korean Women’s Development Institute last year, 60% said adultery should be legally punishable but 63% opposed imprisonment. Just 9% said infidelity was outside the justice system.
Thursday’s decision marked the court’s fifth review of the law since 1989. In 2008, the most recent review, the same court struck down a petition for a repeal, ruling that the law helped uphold “a legal perception that adultery is damaging to the social order and infringes on other’s rights.”
Source: Wall Street Journal
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