South Korea has finally stopped imprisoning adulterers

Forbidden love.
Forbidden love.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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A South Korean court has voided a 60-year-old law that makes marital infidelity illegal, declaring the statue unconstitutional. ”Even if adultery should be condemned as immoral, state power should not intervene in individuals’ private lives,” said justice Park Han-Chul of the country’s constitutional court.

The 1953 law, originally enacted to protect women from unfaithful husbands on whom they were financially dependent, has been criticized over the years as out of date, intrusive, and a tool of revenge for jilted spouses.

While few South Koreans go to jail for marital infidelity these days—after 42 were jailed in 2008, only 22 have served time adultery since then—more than 35,000 people have been jailed since 1985. And almost 53,000 have been indicted for adultery during that span, including almost 900 last year. The law had been upheld in four previous cases, with the latest coming in 2009, when famous South Korean actress Ok So-ri was found guilty of adultery in a high-profile case.

Abolishing an antiquated law won’t help the country’s biggest problem when it comes to family life—an extremely low birth rate of around 1.3 children per woman. And Korean courts still don’t make it easy for couples to escape unhappy marriages. In 2010, a court ruled that couples cannot file for divorce on the grounds that one partner refuses to have sex.

Some Koreans worry that overturning the adultery law will do more harm than good. Justice Ahn Chang-Ho has said its abolition would “spark a surge in debauchery.” And he may not be wrong—Reuters reported that shares in the Korean condom maker Unidus soared 15% after the ruling was announced.