The Price of Adultery

“Woman Faces Jail For Adulterous Affair”

No, this didn’t happen to some lucky woman in some Taliban-infested village of Afghanistan (an unlucky one would’ve been stoned to death or buried alive). This happened and is still happening in modern day South Korea. The same South Korea that has leapt to the forefront of stem cell research, is leading the pack in broadband saturation, and is impressing international audience with original gems like Old Boy, No Regret, Portrait of a Beauty, and Mother, but to date is still enforcing a 1953 law that criminalizes adultery punishable up to two years in jail. Although the number of cases where adulterers are thrown in jail is occurring significantly less these days, the number of lawsuits against cheating spouses filed in court is still shockingly high. For all who are interested in Korean culture, being aware and understanding this draconian remnant from post war Korea will shed light on many befuddling k-drama and k-film plot lines. How many unsuspecting casual k-drama viewers got stumped when the heroine In Sung in Bad Love 못된 사랑 (2007-2008) was thrown in jail for adultery? Hence, let’s delve a moment into the modern Korean psyche which grafts centuries old patriarch-dominant Confucian morality with progressive ideals of a young generation nursed on DHA-fortified milk, educated en mass at hagwons, brought up on the Internet, and fertile for global assimilation.

The stubborn refusal by the Korean Constitutional Court to overturn this law seems glaringly paradoxal and archaic to the aspirations of a continuously progressing modern Korea. The stale argument that decriminalizing it would weaken social morality is laughable in the face of all the conspicuously cheap and convenient ‘sex motels’ thriving in throes in Seoul. Plus, isn’t it an irrefutable fact that making something forbidden only fuels its allure, so the law inadvertently is propagating what it seeks to ban?

If popular culture is the lens into a society’s psyche, then the overused recurring k-drama scene of unmarried couples, cheating husbands and bored wives, horny teenagers, or anyone with a libido slinking off to do the horizontal mambo is telling of the futility of criminalizing adultery as an effort to protect and sanctify the marriage institution and stabilize society. Cheating does not necessarily stem from a desire to divorce or leads to divorce, especially in the cases of the wandering husbands, which statistically the courts have been hypocritically lenient with. People have and will cheat despite their vows of undying love and fidelity at the altar and laws punishing cheaters will not stop this behavior. Only the individual can enforce him/herself not to behave as such. Of course, sadly, it doesn’t help that the sex-trade is so rampant and accessible in Korea despite tougher crackdowns and punishments to date. The only seemingly utilitarian function this outdated law serves is contributing to twisted plot lines in every other k-drama and movie.

Would it have been as funny in Its a Good Day to Have an Affair 바람피기 좋은날 (2007) if Dew’s husband had tried to catch her in the act unaccompanied by a squadron of policemen in toe? What better catalyst for revenge in Bad Boy 나쁜남자 (2010) than Madame Shin’s calculated cruelty towards little Tae Sung for being an illegitimate child of her cuckolding husband? Just making a character an illegitimate child carries enough implications to illicit heart attack inducing reactions that are loudly and over-dramatically acted out in the dramas. The Korean audience understands why. And now, so do you.

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