Features | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s Silenced Speak

South Korea’s patriarchal society has often pressured victims of sexual crimes to keep quiet. But a blockbuster movie revealing the abuse of children could help change this.

By Bryan Kay for

For almost 13 years, In-hae says she spent much of her time cowering in fear, on constant alert for the next round of sexual abuse, in a place she should have been at her safest: her home.

Suffering at the hands of a close relative from the age of 7, it took the guts of a 19 year-old, enrolled in college and introduced to a world of until then unknown freedoms, to flee the scene of her torment and finally report the matter to the authorities.

But for In-hae, now living in a center for victims of sexual violence, even finding the courage to file a complaint was a journey fraught with emotional turmoil.

In patriarchal South Korea, sexual crime, say campaigners, is often hushed up, while the cases that do result in a conviction often end in lenient sentences. But it’s an issue the country has been forced to confront in recent weeks. A blockbuster movie called “Dogani” (The Crucible), or Silenced, has thrust the topic of sexual crime onto the national agenda, highlighting the vulnerability of the disabled and minors in South Korean society.

The film tells the real-life story of the years of sexual abuse suffered by children with hearing problems at the hands of teachers at a school in Gwangju, in the southwest of the country. Though the case saw two convictions, viewers have been aghast at what they’ve seen in the film, which depicts the sexual assaults, attempts at a cover-up, and the fight for justice by the victims.

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In turn, it has lit the touch paper of national outrage, leading to calls for tougher sex crime laws and harsher punishments. Many citizens claimed to see in the film an accurate, catch-all image of the country as a whole: a place where the law supports the strong over the weak. Some point to the way in which members of the chaebol families – those that control South Korean conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Lotte – appear to act as if they are above the law as a classic example of life here.

One case involving a trucking company boss, who beat up a unionist before an audience of executives before throwing a check for cash in the victim's face, drew headlines after the perpetrator received only a suspended sentence. He’s related to one of the country’s wealthiest men.

In In-hae’s view, this was merely another example of a society that “supports the victimizer” and “blames the victim.”

In spite of her detailed testimony, she says her abuser walked free from court with an acquittal, due to a lack of material evidence.

The system that she says failed her, though, may have started on the road toward meaningful change at the end of last month. South Korea’s national legislature, sparked into action by the outrage fomented by “The Crucible,” passed a new law, 207-0, that dispensed with the statute of limitations on sex crimes committed against those defined as the “socially weak” – children under 13 and disabled women. The law also raised the maximum penalty for such crimes to life imprisonment.

In-hae is now part of a low-budget documentary called “Speak Out,” which is directed by Choi Mi-kyoung, herself a victim of sexual abuse.

Choi says she wants to draw attention to the plight of sex crime victims in South Korea, and their often lonely, fruitless fight for justice. In her experience, she adds, the media has also proven insensitive in its treatment of sex crime victims.

Such grassroots efforts – and the need for tougher laws – would appear to find support in national crime figures. One estimate suggests just 6 percent to 8 percent of victims report cases to the police. Figures from 2009, the most recent available, show only 41 percent of those who came forward saw a conviction.

“We want the court system to change,” says In-hae, sighing. “When I saw these statistics about the conviction rate and the number of cases reported I was so upset.”

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Yet In-hae also paints a picture of a flawed cultural backdrop to the widespread view of a broken legal system.

She says her entire family disowned her because she reported the matter to the authorities. Even reaching the decision to tell her story publicly meant pushing aside an instinct that said society would reject her. In South Korea, says In-hae, the necessity to maintain face is pervasive because “if the victim and victimizer are family,” the family unit “thinks they have to care about what other people think before me.”

Even some of those closest to her voiced opposition to public exposure. “Among the counselors, some still don’t think it’s good for victims to tell their stories to others because they know the reality outside of the shelter,” she explains.

“Two friends, one a pastor, told me after hearing my story, ‘I think you went through a very hard life, but for yourself, how about you stop telling your story to others?’”

But there are signs of hope.

After the release of “The Crucible,” South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was one of those who called for “legal and institutional changes,” a call that helped prompt the first of what many hope will be more changes when the national legislature moved to pass the new sex crime law.

But perhaps some of the most telling responses came from other opinion leaders – of the kind Choi accused of treating sex crimes victims with insensitivity. Like many others, in the wake of the film’s release The Korea Herald offered a damning indictment of the South Korean legal system. In an editorial, it said judges “should not ignore the resentment” felt by the general public about their actions in dealing with sex offenders – the result, the newspaper seethed, of the “lenient sentences” they had been handing down.

For victims like In-hae and Choi, it’s the more profound societal change that could come from statements such as this that is often craved the most.

Bryan Kay is a freelance journalist who covers the Koreas for the Christian Science Monitor and the Sunday Herald in Scotland. He has also written for the Independent on Sunday, the New Statesman and the International Herald Tribune.