Why is Adultery So Popular in South Korea?

By JOOHEE CHO, ABC News Digital Reporter, Seoul

Extra-marital affairs are nothing new in South Korea. In an online survey last year by monthly women's magazine Woman Sense, 79 percent of married men and 15.5 percent of married women in their 30s and 40s admitted adultery.

The pervasiveness is reflected in mass media. A usual climax for popular primetime TV dramas involves a scene where a wife hires a private detective to shadow her suspicious husband, and then asks policemen to break into a hotel room while her husband is in bed with a young lover.

Adultery is a crime by law in Korea. To file a lawsuit, the plaintiff must submit proof such as photos or videos of actual sexual intercourse. Bed sheets or tissue papers with semen samples collected by witnessing policemen are also strong evidence. And it does not matter how rich and famous the spouse may be, because monetary sanctions are not prescribed to criminal adultery. By law the sentence is up to two years in jail.

Yes, it is a messy business.

But ironically having affairs is seen in a different light in Korea. In fact, my married Korean friends openly talk about girlfriends or boyfriends, moreso of "wanting" a lover rather than confessing to an ongoing relationship. But conceptually an affair is more often considered a rebelliously courageous and romantic act than a morally despicable betrayal. That is assuming that the would-be lovers in question are dutifully playing their roles as husbands and wives -- making money to support the family, taking care of the kids and spending time with the in-laws.

All but having sex with your spouse, because that falls into a different category, according to my cynical girlfriends. Nearly 30 percent of married couples said they are "sexless" – defined as having intercourse less than a few times a year – in a nationwide poll carried out this year by the Korea Institute for Sexology.

When famous Korean actress Ok So-ri was accused last year by her celebrity husband of having an affair with a singer, the public was stunned; first, because they had masqueraded as a happy family with lovey-dovey interviews and photo shoots, and second, because she openly announced at a news conference that she and her husband had sex only 10 times in their 11 years of marriage.

That was not a good excuse for an affair, at least in the eyes of legal authorities. She ended up this week with a suspended jail sentence, with two years of probation.

As the nation watched the tit-for-tat, ugly battle between the two, adultery has become a popular subject of table talk in parties and gatherings. The actress had challenged the 55-year legislation with a petition to abolish the law, but the constitutional court in October rejected it. She had argued that it is an infringement upon individual rights to sexual choice.

But 50.6 percent of Koreans support the law, citing monogamy and the need to protect women, according to a survey earlier this year.

Progressives argue that the ban on adultery must stay but should be reformed so that it is dealt with in a divorce court, not a criminal court. That way, the adulterer would have the option to pay for his or her deeds through a fine instead of jail time.

“The current law is outdated and far from reflecting reality,” said Cho Kuk, professor of law at Seoul National University. Since one is required to file for divorce before accusing one’s spouse of adultery, he reasons, the marriage's termination is already prefigured, and the law becomes only a means of seeking revenge against the spouse, rather than a way to keep families from falling apart.

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