South Korean court strikes down adultery law

A South Korean court on Thursday abolished a 62-year-old law that bans extramarital affairs, ruling that the law suppresses personal freedoms.

About 53,000 have been indicted on adultery charges since 1985

South Korean actress Ok So-ri is shown at a Dec. 17, 2008 court date. Ok received a suspended sentence for adultery, and would lose custody of her daughter in divorce proceedings. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

A South Korean court on Thursday abolished a 62-year-old law that bans extramarital affairs, ruling that the law suppresses personal freedoms.

The ruling by the Constitutional Court could potentially affect thousands of individuals who faced adultery charges since Oct. 31, 2008, a day after the court previously upheld the adultery ban. Current charges could be thrown out and anyone given a guilty verdict would be eligible for a retrial, according to a court official, who didn't want to be named, citing office rules.

Prosecutors have indicted more than 5,400 people on adultery charges between November 2008 and January this year, according to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office.

Under the law having sex with a married person who is not your spouse was punishable by up to two years in prison. Nearly 53,000 South Koreans have been indicted on adultery charges since 1985, but prison terms have been rare.

The debate over the adultery ban, which has been part of South Korea's criminal law since 1953, intensified in recent years as fast-changing social trends challenged conservative traditional values.

Imprisonment rare in recent years

Supporters of the law had claimed it promotes monogamy and keeps families intact, while opponents argued that the government has no right to interfere with people's private lives and determine their sexual affairs.

Seven judges of the court, which rules on the constitutionality of laws, supported the ruling, while two dissented, the court said. The support of six judges is needed to abolish a law.

It was the fifth time the court had reviewed the adultery ban since 1990. The last time, in October 2008, five of the judges said the law was unconstitutional.

Legal experts have said that the adultery ban had lost much of its effect as people were increasingly settling their marriage disputes in civil courts. Adultery can be prosecuted only on a complaint made by a spouse who has filed for divorce. The case immediately ends if the plaintiff drops the charge, which is common when financial settlements are reached.

"Recently, it was extremely rare for a person to serve a prison term for adultery," said Lim Ji-bong, a law professor at Sogang University in Seoul. "The number of indictments has decreased as charges are frequently dropped."


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