For more than 60 years, South Korea has criminalized extra-marital sex, punishing violators with jail time of up to two years. Now, the country's Constitutional Court has struck down this controversial adultery law on Thursday, Feb. 26.
The nine-member bench ruled by a 7-2 decision that Article 241 of the criminal code was unconstitutional. The objective of the 1953 statute was to protect traditional family values, but Thursday's decision reflects a rising importance of personal choice over marital order in the country.
"The article violates individuals' freedom to choose their sexual partners and their right to privacy," five of the justices opined. "Not only is the anti-adultery law gradually losing its place in the world, it no longer reflects our people's way of thinking."
The court likewise said that maintaining marriage and family should be based on a person's free will and love. It also pointed out that the law has frequently been misused for blackmail and divorce suits.
Two of the justices said that family issues should not be criminalized or at least the severity of the penalty would depend on the intricacy of the matter. The two opposing justices on the other hand said that the law is needed to protect the institution of marriage and sexual ethics.
Since 1953, about 100,000 South Koreans have been convicted of adultery but the number of convictions has dwindled over the years. Over the past five years, 5,466 individuals have been charged for engaging in adulterous relationships. With the abolition of the law, charges on these individuals have been annulled; those convicted are eligible to apply for retrials. Adulterers who were jailed can ask for compensation from the state.
Only 22 of these 5,466 cases have led to jail time. In 2014, nearly 900 people were indicted but no one was put behind bars.
Although the ruling will exempt individuals who were accused of adultery from criminal charges, it does not mean that they no longer have any legal responsibility. Cheaters may still face civil damage suits.
The ruling received mixed reactions from the public. Some activists see it as a demonstration of progress in women's rights, citing that the law has been traditionally used for punishing women.
Conservative and Christian groups, on the other hand, opposed the decision, claiming that the lack of punishment for cheaters could eventually lead to the dissolution of marriage and that social morals may be placed at risk.