Recently, the horrific details of an 8 year old who was raped and mutilated have been splashed through the media. The little girl was abducted on her way to school by a repeat sexual offender, raped in a public washroom, and then permanently disfigured when the perpetrator tried to ‘clean up the evidence.’ She will use a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
Sexual violence is making the news more frequently in Korea, causing more people to be aware of the prevalence of sexual crimes. However, the greatest outcry in this case comes because the perpetrator not only received a sentence many consider too lenient (12 years), but he returned to court to petition for an even lighter sentence. The reason? He claims he should be granted a more lenient sentence because he was mentally incapacitated due to being drunk. The court had already reduced his sentence based on his claim of incapacity.
This is a defence often used in Korea. People are given lighter sentences for sexual assault, harassment, violence, and traffic accidents if they can show they were drunk. It seems defence lawyers regularly cite the mentally incapacitated clause in the criminal code to request commuted sentences…and until now…this has not created a public uproar. Since drinking is routinely used in work group teams and between feuding friends and family members to provide a culturally-sanctioned space to both let go and vent frustrations, many people try to ‘understand’ the situation of the perpetrator rather than the victim. However, with the increase of child abductions and rape making the news, the assumption that the victim must have held some role in the outcome has come under scrutiny.
One can only hope that this introspection and desire to make changes to this legal custom continue until a new concept of responsibility is routinely acknowledged. Alcohol consumption is an incredibly important part of Korean life. Drinking is the way people mend and maintain relationships, build team spirit, and solidify allegiances. This culture is not going away any time soon, but there needs to be an understanding of responsibility attached to this custom – especially in the case of sexual violence. When a person takes a drink they are responsible for choosing to take that drink. And if they choose to drink, they must also be responsible for their actions. Sexual violence is never an accident – whether it is perpetrated with or without alcohol. But it takes the public consciousness and will to prevent sexual abuse and harassment from being justified. I hope that this is the moment people refuse to continue to justify.