There’s good news in South Korea: One of the country’s favorite actresses may return to the spotlight after a six-year absence. Unlike many entertainers who take time away for rehab or spiritual regeneration, Ok So-ri, a celebrated actress of the 1990s and the former host of the popular radio show “11 O’clock, I Am Ok So-ri,” left the country and abandoned her career to stay out of jail. In 2008 she was sentenced to eight months in prison after the actor Park Chul, who was then her husband, accused her of adultery. Now she is poised to come back home.
In February, South Korea’s Constitutional Court overturned the 62-year-old law that made adultery illegal. While enforcement has relaxed in recent years, about 53,000 people have been charged with adultery since 1985, the year the government started keeping track. If found guilty, the penalty could include jail time of up to two years, although it had become rare for convicted adulterers to serve time.
The ruling reflects the slow shift in South Korea from privileging traditional Asian values over individual rights and freedoms. The majority opinion in the 7-2 vote said, “It should be left to the free will and love of people to decide whether to maintain marriage, and the matter should not be externally forced through a criminal code.”
Though the decriminalization of adultery is a step forward for personal rights, most of the South Korean public does not see it that way. One poll conducted after the verdict by the newspaper Chosun Ilbo found that almost 65 percent of respondents were against the judgment. Another poll last year found that 60 percent supported the criminalization of adultery.
The law continued to have so much support and persisted for so long because South Korea is still a deeply conservative country. Its backers liked to think it kept traditional family life intact by discouraging divorce through reining in the desires of wayward men. But the law only calcified women’s inferior standing.
Adultery was criminalized in 1953 to protect women at a time when they had a much lower status than men and were mostly confined to domestic roles. Opportunities to enter the work force were extremely limited, and most women were economically dependent on their husbands, who in the 1950s could easily get divorced and remarry with no stigma. Back then, divorced South Korean women were seen as disgraced; finding employment and remarrying were very difficult.
The adultery law was seen as a safeguard for women against divorce. It empowered women because they could hold the threat of legal action over philandering husbands. It was a tool to keep their men from divorcing them.
Yet that power only got them so far. Sure, women might be able to prevent a cheating spouse from divorcing them, and thus avoid the social disgrace and harsh economic reality that came with the separation. But they still had to live with an undesirable husband — and sometimes they would do so for decades. The stigma attached to divorced women remained.
Real social reform would go beyond the adultery law and address the sexism that permeates South Korean society. Instead of lamenting the loss of an outdated adultery law, we should be fighting for full equality for women.
Women still have far fewer opportunities for social advancement than men: There are entire sectors of the economy completely absent of women. Women who do enter major companies usually face a low glass ceiling. In 2013 the average salary for women was almost 40 percent lower than the average salary for men. And although the president of South Korea is a woman, only 16 percent of members of Parliament are female.
Employers need to abandon the prejudice they have against hiring young women for fear they will get pregnant. Anti-discrimination laws should be put in place so that companies discontinue sexist hiring practices. Simultaneously, in order to alter the conservative male-oriented work culture, popular forms of media should focus on providing more examples of independent, successful women. Right now, women in fiction are almost always portrayed within the sphere of domestic space, completely dependent on men.
There is a fear in South Korea that without the law, adultery will become more common and the population will become hypersexualized. Yet for all the wishful thinking of conservatives, the realities of the modern world have been intervening for some time: South Korea’s divorce rate has skyrocketed in the last 15 years and is now among the highest in Asia.
Ok So-ri might stage a comeback, but traditionalists have little to worry about. As long as women are second-class citizens, as long as they face inequality in the workplace, they will continue to fulfill traditional roles within the family. It’s not as if they have much of a choice.
Hailji is a professor of creative writing at Dongduk Women’s University and is the author, most recently, of The Republic of Uzupis. This article was translated by Jake Levine and Sangkeun Yoo from the Korean.