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The Ghost of Syngman Rhee


Reports from South Korea that the country’s constitutional court has overturned a law criminalizing adultery offer a teachable moment on headlines and the changing face of journalism.

Sex is not the topic under consideration, as interesting as it might be to most newspaper readers. The journalism question is one of proportion -- finding the balance between fidelity to the news and creating a hook, or come-on, to get the reader’s attention. The news issue is not adultery, but the ghost of Syngman Rhee and the Westernization of Korean society.

Granted, sex sells more easily than Syngman Rhee, but at one time the model to which journalists aspired was the New York Times and the traditional school of Anglo-American journalism.  Now it seems journalists want to be the modern version of Gonzo journalism -- Comedy Central.

The underlying facts of the story are presented in a New York Times article written by Cho San-Hung. It begins:

South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Thursday struck down a 62-year-old law that made adultery an offense punishable by up to two years in prison, citing the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights.

“It has become difficult to say that there is a consensus on whether adultery should be punished as a criminal offense,” five of the court’s nine justices said in a joint opinion. “It should be left to the free will and love of people to decide whether to maintain marriage, and the matter should not be externally forced through a criminal code.”

The “nut graf” -- the paragraph that explains the news value of the story -- comes in the third paragraph.

In their opinion, the five justices also said they doubted that the law was still useful in preventing adultery. Instead, they said, it has often been used by spouses to force a divorce or by those outside the marriage to blackmail married women who have cheated on their husbands. (The stigma of adultery is greater for women, making it harder to blackmail men who have committed adultery.)

The message being sent by the Times reporter is that this decision reflects the changing dynamics of Korean society. The story notes:

The adultery law was adopted in 1953, with the stated purpose of protecting women who had little recourse against cheating husbands in a male-dominated society. But divorce rates and women’s economic and legal standing have soared in the decades since, leaving many to argue that the law outlived its usefulness. Others, however, considered the ability to open an adultery case a necessary option for wronged wives in a society that, despite its rapid change, is still largely male-centered

The article acknowledges the religious aspects of these issues, highlighting the opposition to this ruling by faith groups.

Sungkyunkwan, an organization of Korean Confucianists that had championed the law, called the ruling “deplorable” and said that people should be ashamed of adultery.

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