The scandal had all the makings of a tabloid blockbuster: A soap opera actor accused his wife, another popular television star, of infidelity with his close friend and an Italian chef who was giving her private cooking lessons.
The actor, Park Chul, pressed charges against his wife, Ok So-ri, and the two men under South Korea’s adultery law, which prohibits extramaritaal affairs and can land those found guilty in prison for up to two years.
Then the 39-year-old Ok took the drama a step further. She admitted to having an affair (with the friend, not the chef). And she filed a petition in court, challenging the constitutionality of the 55-year-old adultery statute.
With that move, she turned a messy marital struggle into a public battle over the country’s changing mores.
Like many countries, South Korea has long been troubled by contradictions over sex outside marriage. Until this century, women faced ostracism — shunned even by their birth families — if they cheated on their husbands, but men, especially wealthy ones, were allowed to keep concubines.
Now, even as some hold to fairly puritanical standards — sex education in schools is still discouraged — the country’s strict social code seems to be weakening somewhat. Divorce is becoming more common, and so-called love motels, which cater to guests having illicit sex, are opening throughout the country.
Those who support the adultery law see it as the last bulwark against the “free-sex culture of the West,” while opponents call it an anachronism.
“The state meddling in which sex partner we should have — that’s too much,” Lim Sung-bin, Ok’s lawyer, said this month after a three-hour hearing at the Constitutional Court, where his client did not appear. “Such a time is gone.”
The nine-member court said it would rule on the case soon. It is deliberating Ok’s suit, along with three other petitions against the adultery law, all filed in the past year.
South Korea is among a dwindling number of non-Muslim countries where an adultery conviction can earn a jail sentence. About 70 percent of South Koreans support the adultery law, according to surveys conducted in recent years by the government and the news media.
Each year, more than 1,200 people are indicted under the law, and about half are convicted.
“Some argue that no law should intrude beneath the quilt,” said Han Sang-dae, a Justice Ministry official who defended the law during the Constitutional Court hearing. “But if we allow freedom for extramarital affairs, it will threaten our sexual morality as well as monogamy, a foundation of our society.”
The Constitutional Court has ruled three times in favor of the adultery law, the last time in 2001.
The challenge also comes as the law is losing some of its staunchest backers. Two long-standing champions of women’s rights and the adultery law — the Korean Women’s Association United and the Ministry of Gender Equality — say it is time for South Korea to consider abolishing it.
Women’s groups had been some of the strongest supporters of criminalizing adultery. In the past, most adultery suits were filed by wives against husbands; the law gave them leverage in a society where women had little recourse against their husbands’ infidelity.
With their economic and legal status rising, many women no longer fear divorce or feel that they need a law to help them deal with a cheating husband. And with a growing number of men applying the law against their wives, women are questioning whether the protections it offers are worth the risks.