Koreans are still pretty conservative when it comes to sex. Virginity is still valued and a large number of people didn’t have or haven’t had sex before marriage. According to one study in the 1990s only 6 percent of female high school students said they had sex. According to a survey by an Japanese underwear company, 82 percent of the women in Seoul sleep with underwear on underneath their nightgowns. South Korea has an active sex trade. According to the South Korean Institute of Criminology and Associated Press, the amount spent on prostitution alone amounted to US$23.6 billion in 2002.

Sex is supposed to be private and sex before marriage is frowned upon. Sex has generally been something people only whispered about to their closest friends. Korea is not totally puritanical. More and more young people are having sex, often love-hotel-style yogwans or in video bongs (small rooms that can be rented out to watch videos). Condoms are sold in movie theater restrooms, sexual accessory shops are fairly common and street hawkers sell penis rings guaranteed to heighten the pleasure of their partners and have orange dildos to demonstrate how they work. When femidom female condoms were introduced they were so popular that store carrying them soon sold out.

The Korean word for testicles is the equivalent of "fire eggs." According to a sex survey of married men, more than half of the men interviewed said they had sex at least twice a week with their wives. Thirty-six percent said the had sex three or four times a week, 20 percent said they had sex at least once a day, while only 15.4 said they had sex only once a week. About 17 percent said their virility was "strong" while 70.4 said it was "normal," and 40.7 percent said they spent between 5 and 10 minutes on foreplay.

Among court cases regarding sex that made it to the newspapers in the early 2000s were one involving a woman who was ordered to pay her husband US$7,000 because he refused to have sex with him after their wedding night; and another regarding man who had undergone a sex change operation to become a woman and could not legally be a victim of rape.

Sex Survey Results from South Korea

A survey by Time magazine in 2001 asked if premarital sex is okay. 74 percent of males and 64 percent of females said yes. The same sex survey 78 percent of males and 89 percent of females said that monogamy was important to them; 48 percent of males and 50 percent of females said they thought they were sexy; and 96 percent of males and 4 percent of females said they were the ones who initiated sex.

In the 2001 Time sex survey 27 percent of males and 38 percent of females said it was important to marry a virgin; and 73 percent of males and 62 percent of females said they had had oral sex. When asked how many sexual partners they had had: 18 percent of males and 51 percent of females said one; 39 percent of males and 39 percent of females said two to four; 27 percent of males and 6 percent of females said five to 12; and 17 percent of males and 4 percent of females said more than 13.

The 2013 Asia-Pacific Sexual Behaviors and Satisfaction Survey polled more than 3,500 men and women aged 18-45 years old in Australia, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The study was aimed at “understanding the impact of premature ejaculation has on couples’ relationships and sexual satisfaction.” The survey was conducted between March 18, 2013 and April 2, 2013, used the five-question Premature Ejaculation Diagnostic Tool (PEDT), which is a validated research instrument for diagnosing PE.

Birth Control in South Korea

About 80 percent of all women use contraception (compared to 2 percent in Cameroon and 83 percent in the United Kingdom). Even though the pill is a widely available over-the-counter drug in South Korea, in one study, more than 50 percent of married men said they used condoms, 2.6 percent said their wives were on the pill and 14.4 percent said either they or their wives were sterilized in operations.

In a 2001 Time sex survey 92 percent of males and 60 percent of females said they used a condom and 22 percent of males and 19 percent of females said they had never used a contraceptive.

Contraceptive prevalence rate: (2015) 79.6 percent: This figure is the percent of women of reproductive age (15-49) who are married or in union and are using, or whose sexual partner is using, a method of contraception. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Contraceptive use (any method, women ages 15-49): 80 percent (compared to 12 percent in Sudan and 84 percent in the United Kingdom) [Source: World Bank ]

Top method of contraception: male condom [Source: Birth Control Around the World ]

Types of birth control used (2015); female sterilization: 5.8 percent; male sterilization: 16.5 percent; pill: 2.0 percent; IUD: 12.6 percent; implant: 4.4 percent; male condom: 23.9 percent; vaginal barrier: 0.9 percent; early withdrawal: 0 percent; rhythm method: 9.7 percent; other: 2.7 percent total: 78.7 [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 - the United Nations ]

Types of birth control used (1994): female sterilization: 28.7 percent; male sterilization: 11.5 percent; pill: 1.8 percent; IUD: 10.4 percent; male condom: 14.2 percent; vaginal barrier: 0 percent; early withdrawal: 0 percent; rhythm method: 7.8 percent; total: 77.2 [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 - the United Nations ]

In 1996, a 17-year-old girl, who had hidden her pregnancy from her family by bounding her belly with an ace bandage, gave birth to a baby boy in the rest room of shop on her way to school.

Kissing, Sexy Office Clothes and Public Displays of Affection

Kissing is regarded as just one step shy of sex. French kissing is seen as some kind of exotic, forbidden experience. And, many university students and young people in their twenties have never kissed a member of the opposite sex (or their own sex) and never even seen their parents kiss. Men rarely say to their wives, "I love you." When given the choice most men prefer to with other men and than their wives.

Public expressions of affection between men and women are frowned upon. You rarely see couples making out in a park or a bar, but more and more you see couples walking arm and arm together or holding hands. A couple of times while riding my bicycle on remote mountain roads I came across women giving men hand jobs in the front seats of their car.

The Koreans are more affectionate with members of their own sex than they are with the opposite sex. It is not unusual to see women holding hands or men walking down the street arm and arm. I'll never forget the way a couple of drunk American GI's reacted to see this for the first time. "The whole country is full of faggots," one of them said.

In 2009, AFP reported: “Almost three-quarters of South Korean male office workers feel uncomfortable when female colleagues show too much leg or cleavage in the workplace, a survey has revealed. A poll of 1,254 employees by the job portal site CareerNet found that 74 percent of men felt upset with the attire of their female co-workers. Some 56 percent of them cited micro-miniskirts as their chief complaint, while 51 percent objected to excessive cleavage. Low-rise trousers that reveal women's underwear, "killer heels" and flashy outfits in general were also cause for complaint. Women meanwhile complained mostly of stains on the shirts and ties of their male colleagues. Both sexes disapproved of colourful underwear under a white top, slippers or sandals and sleeveless clothes. South Koreans in general still dress conservatively in the workplace, with an emphasis on suits and ties among men. [Source: AFP, July 7, 2009]

Sex, History and Traditional Korean Culture

Koreans were fairly open about sex until Confucianism firmly took hold in the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1010). Phallic and vaginal symbols have traditionally played a big role in traditional Korean animist religions. Stones resembling penises and vaginas are still worshipped as "genital gods" in some rural communities. In one place women still hug and bow to namgunsok (phallus-shaped rocks) and throw stones on yogunsok (vagina-shaped rocks) as part of prayer ritual for a child, especially a son. In some fishing villages wooden phalluses are hung from trees twice a year in ritual to ensure safe journeys and bring abundant catches.

The curator of sex museum in Seoul told the Los Angeles Times, “The upper classes throught that the public portrayal of sex was too vulgar, whereas the lower classes saw it as natural. It was natural into the 20th century for poorer women to quite openly show their breasts to suggest their fertility. even when I was young, my grandmother would expose hers and fan them when it got hot.”

The Japanese and the military dictators encouraged the maintenance of a strict morale code. Anything considered sexually suggestive was cut from films and videos and blacked out in publications. Some have said that even North Koreans talk more openly about sex and have more dirty jokes, partly because they are less afraid to talk about sex than the government. Only in recent ears have South Koreans begun to open more. Some of these changes are credited to democracy,

South Korea's First Swingers' Club

South Korea's first swingers' club opened in 2009, presenting some legal dilemmas. AFP reported: “South Korea's first swingers' club — where couples can swap partners for sex — has made a roaring debut, leaving police who want to close it down struggling to respond. The club opened in Seoul's prosperous Kangnam District where business appears to be thriving, with many visitors writing favourable comments on its website about their experience. "Say no to sex-related taboos," it proclaims on its Internet homepage. [Source: By Agence France-Presse, July 1, 2009]

The club only accepts adults who have booked through the Internet. Couples watch or have sex with one or more partners. "Law experts told us there is no legal basis to crack down on this club," where consenting adults have sex in a closed space, one of its unidentified owners was quoted as telling the Yonhap news agency.

“Police admitted that it would be difficult to apply existing laws banning prostitution or obscene performances in this case. Still, "we've told the Kangnam police station to find legal provisions to crack down on it," said Yang Sung-Cheol, a senior officer at the Seoul Police Agency. After news reports about the club, its website crashed under the strain of thousands of people trying to log on at the same time.

South Koreans Opens Up About Sex and Alarm Over This

Benjamin Haas wrote in The Guardian: ““Long held taboos around sex are rapidly melting away, giving rise to more casual relationships and less focus on marriage, while doctors have seen a sharp increase in the number of patients asking for contraceptives. Many in Seoul are still shy when discussing sex, and Korean uses a host of English loan words for terms including “penis”, “adult shop” and even “sex” itself. Despite the country having some of the fastest internet in the world, the government regularly, placing it on the same level as gambling and North Korean propaganda. [Source: Benjamin Haas, The Guardian, November 24, 2017]

“While portrayals of relationships in mainstream media remain largely chaste, there have been a few edgier programmes. The television show Witch Hunt, which first aired in 2013, was known for its frank talk about sex and relationships, but was originally conceived as a programme to teach awkward men how to succeed in romance and all of the four hosts were male. In March a show called Cranky Men and Women began airing with the explicit purpose of “talking honestly about gender stereotypes in everyday life”, and has been championed by prominent feminists.”

Some “attribute the newfound sexual freedom to the rise of feminism in popular culture and increased visibility of sexual minorities fighting for equality. But South Korea’s large and vocal Christian community is alarmed by recent trends. Pastor So Kang-suk preaches often about the pitfalls of liberal attitudes towards sex and he is a frequent fixture at anti-LGBTI demonstrations. “South Korea had been respecting its traditional values, but this such a radical change,” So said. “It’s going in the wrong direction.” “South Korea had been respecting its traditional values, but this such a radical change,” So said. “It’s going in the wrong direction.” He likens the trend to the Summer of Love, when thousands of hippies espousing peace and free love descended on San Francisco in 1967.

“His Sae Eden congregation, a megachurch in a Seoul suburb with 40,000 parishioners, has started hosting events aiming to teach people “sex is valuable, sex is precious”. “People are sexual animals, but there must be ethical values in sex,” he said. “Even as this new openness comes at us like a flood, the youth that engages in free sex, if they look deep inside themselves they can’t say what they are doing is legitimate or proper.”

Korean Women Into Sex

Benjamin Haas wrote in The Guardian: “When Lin Yu-han has a successful date, she uses Twitter to talk about it. Other times she simply calls for her followers to shed South Korea’s conservative social mores and have a bit more fun. “Why do you need to be engaged or feel some deep responsibility to have sex?” she wrote. “If they’re hotties with bodies just hop on.” “Who cares about goddamn attachment,” Lin wrote in another post, adding an expletive-filled sentence that expressed her hatred of men who underperform in bed. “From now on, I’ll try them out and if the sex is bad, I’m never gonna meet them again.” [Source: Benjamin Haas, The Guardian, November 24, 2017]

“Lin is part of a grassroots sexual revolution sweeping South Korea, where a deeply conservative society is beginning to loosen up when it comes to sex, and women are challenging centuries of strict gender roles in relationships. “A lot of people still think a woman talking about sex in public is bad, while men talk about sex all the time,” Lin said in an interview in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam neighbourhood. “I just want to break that.”

“The 34-year-old has been chronicling her relationships and thoughts on sex for more than two years, originally with the aim of encouraging other young women to be more independent. She believes that as South Korea’s economic growth has plateaued, marrying young has become less important, leaving more room for casual relationships.

Woman-Owned Sex Shop in Seoul

“Benjamin Haas wrote in The Guardian: “The most conspicuous manifestation of South Korea’s newfound openness is a rash of sex shops that have sprung up across Seoul, the latest fad in a country that latches on to trends with particular ferocity. Pleasure Lab, in the fashionable tree-lined Dosan neighbourhood, mainly focuses on women, and its founder, Eura Kwak, a former nurse, holds regular educational seminars. [Source: Benjamin Haas, The Guardian, November 24, 2017]

“With Kendrick Lamar on the sound system and a clean, minimalist design, the shop tries to shake the seedy image most associate with sex toys. Staff ensure every customer receives a pamphlet with a detailed drawing showing the location of the clitoris. “It’s difficult for women to take a leading role in South Korean society when it comes to sex,” Kwak said. “Men always took the lead in sex, which meant for a long time sexuality for women did not exist.” “Giving pleasure isn’t shameful, but in Korean culture, when women talk about pleasure people will call her a whore,” she added.

“In a sign of lingering conservative attitudes, South Korea’s most popular search engine, Naver, has blocked results for searches for the store’s name, forcing Kwak to place a sticker on each item explaining how to circumvent the ban. “Without people like us, people’s perception of sex wouldn’t have changed. It’s not about the mood of society allowing us to exist; it’s about spearheading a movement,” she said. “If businesses like us didn’t start, I think we’d be exactly where we were five years ago.”

Love Hotels in South Korea

Love hotels are places that rent out rooms by the hour for couples having trysts and men meeting prostitutes. The hotels have names like Honeymoon Park Inn, Valentine Motel, Eros Motel and Love-In Park. Some rooms are bare and sparsely furnished. Other have round beds, mirrored ceilings, special chairs built for activities other than sitting, and racy artwork. Complementary toothbrushes and condoms sit on the bureau. Most have curtained off underground parking lots to keep the identity of guests secret. Because rooms can be rented for US$10 to US$25 an hour, up to five or six times a day, the hotels can be quite profitable.

There are about 4,000 love hotels in South Korea. They are generally outnumbered by regular hotels in big cities and resorts that welcome many visitors but are often the only hotels in town in small towns, where young people living with their parents and need some place to go for privacy. Some are little different from normal hotels. Other are built to resemble castles. Due to a shortage of hotel rooms they were opened up to foreign travelers for the World Cup in South Korea in 2002.

Explaining their role in society one owner told the Los Angeles Times, “Korea is a moral country that lives with Confucian values of respect and decency...In America, people do it in cars or in the park. In Korea you have to be very conscious about selecting a place to have sex. Although the rooms are rented hourly they aren’t used only for sex. People also rent rooms to play mah-jongg or cards or to drink with their friends.”

In the early 2000s, a fire at a five-story love hotel called: Dream Palace killed six people, including a women who leapt from a window to her death, and injured 27. Around 70 people were at the hotel when the fire broke out. Many refused medical treatment because they did not want to be identified and embarrassed.

South Korean 'Love Hotels' Freshen Up to Attract Younger Clientele

Christine Kim of Reuters wrote: “The grimy windows, racks of adult videos and red bedroom lights are disappearing from South Korea's short-stay hotels as they move upmarket to lure young people who are shedding conservative attitudes in favor of more openness about sex. Competition is heating up amid the falling numbers of the so-called "love hotels", which featured this year in television advertisements by smartphone app companies targeting young, privacy-seeking couples who form the bulk of customers. [Source: Christine Kim, Reuters, August 12, 2015]

At the Hotel Yaja Wangsimni in Seoul, part of a growing franchise chain, amorous couples can enjoy rooms with whirlpool baths, laptops, brand-name amenities and fresh bedsheets, all for 30,000 won (US$26) for three hours. "Motels are now becoming accepted as places couples can comfortably visit as part of regular dates," said a 30-year-old student surnamed Yang, who visits short-stay hotels with his girlfriend up to four times a month.

“Yang, who lives with his parents, like most unmarried young South Korean adults, declined to give his full name. As young Koreans become less inhibited about using love hotels, they are growing pickier about the ones they frequent, said Kim Young-su, a manager at Yaja franchise brand owner Yanolja, whose name translates as "Hey, let's play". "In the past, the bedrooms were dim and complimentary facilities were non-existent," Kim added. "The buildings were designed for a single purpose."

“Yanolja has 70 locations and provides information on motels and hotels through its website and mobile phone app. Hotel owners who modernize their buildings can typically double or triple revenues, said Lee Seung-rae, chief executive of Hotelinn, which offers management classes for motel owners. "It's impossible for small- to medium-sized hotels and motels to make a profit off overnight stays alone," Lee added.

“South Korea's hotel business boomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the government issued thousands of permits in the wake of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Many of those hotels turned into love hotels, with many engaging in prostitution, which is illegal in South Korea, until a 2004 crackdown by then-President Roh Moo-hyun drove some out of business, while others began to spruce themselves up. By 2013, South Korea had about 25,000 establishments that do not offer high-end services such as breakfast and English-speaking lobby staff, a fall of about 12 percent from 2006, government data shows. They generated revenue of 2.2 trillion won, versus sales of 5.6 trillion won for the country's 630 luxury hotels.

“Customers waiting for a room at the Hotel Yaja in Seoul's Wangsimni neighborhood can sit in the lobby and help themselves to coffee or a vending machine snack, in contrast with the hidden entrances and curtained parking areas often used elsewhere to shield customers from curious eyes. "Other motel owners should be more open about their business and veer away from the dark side of the trade," said 10-year industry veteran Huh Soon-young, 52, referring to prostitution. Quality is also becoming a more important criterion as the tech-savvy clientele of short-stay hotels increasingly engage in comparison shopping. As apps gain popularity and celebrities appear in ads, love hotels have become more mainstream. "Very clean! Hygienic!" one user said on the Yanolja app, reviewing a short-stay hotel in the upmarket Gangnam district. "I liked how the toilet is inside a separate space. Very good for shy couples."

Pig Aphrodisiacs in Korea

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “A self-proclaimed dealer on Twitter advertises substances as varied as mulppong, hallucinogens, sleeping pills, Ecstasy, erectile dysfunction pills and "aphrodisiacs for women." Some domestic news outlets report that between 1995 and 2010, nearly 90 cases of crimes involving animal aphrodisiacs were reported, with the numbers increasing year after year. Aphrodisiacs, sold under names such as Yohimbin (a tree bark extract), Spanish Fly (an insect derivative), mulppong and simply “rape drug,” retail at prices ranging from 150 to 300 USD. Their ingredients remain vague in both quality and quantity. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016]

“The veterinary drug has even made its mark on popular culture. The 2002 movie Sex Is Zero starring A-list actress Ha Ji-won shows youths exploring their sexuality, from masturbation to a sex doll to using pig Viagra. More recently, Comedienne Jang Do-yeon caused controversy when she spoke about having spiked a former boyfriend’s drink with the substance, but later retracted the story, saying that she had run out of materials and had made it up to get laughs.

“Pig aphrodisiacs sell for 20 to 30 USD, making them much cheaper than others but nevertheless at a tenfold increase from their base price. This substance is especially problematic for authorities: It can act on the central nervous system and disrupt the endocrine system if administered in large quantities, but not subject to formal checks since it is not officially a narcotic substance.

“Despite health professionals’ and the government’s repeated warnings against using the drug on humans, South Korean men’s demand for such drugs persist, with sales outlets ranging from online malls, erotic shops, and veterinary stores. In 2011, it was found that of the 220 websites reported by the Korea Food & Drug Administration for selling illicit medication including such aphrodisiacs, 95 were still running at the end of the year. Pig aphrodisiacs are also used by teenagers, due to their lower price and availability.

Before Viagra became available 30-pill bottles of the drug sold for up to US$700. Environmentalists welcomed the new drug because it was thought that men would use it instead of by parts of endangered animals.

Pornography, Censorship and Sex in Film

In the 2001 Time sex survey 51 percent of males and 31 percent of females said they had watched pornography in the past three months. When asked if they ever had cybersex, eight percent of males and three percent of females said yes. In the same survey 29 percent of males and 28 percent of females said they needed external stimulants to get aroused.

South Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but contains the caveat that such expression should neither "violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics." The law does not define obscenity, but Jun Ji-yun, a law professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, said it was understood to be something that "brings sexual disgrace to people". [Source: Associated Press. April 15, 2005]

For a long time Korea did not have Playboy or Penthouse magazines and when it finally got Playboy there were no nudes in it. The so-called pornography found at video shops is usually fairly tame. Korea is not like Japan, where men can purchase panties of schoolgirls in vending machines, street corner prostitutes dress up like bunnies and teenagers join S-and-M telephone chat lines.

Soft-core pornographic videos are screened and censored by the Korea Public Performance Ethics Committee. In 1992, “Portrait of Eve”, a book of nude photos by popular singer-actress Yu Yon-shil, was banned and Yu was prohibited from appearing on television. The book was legalized in 1995. Much of the pornography sold on the underground market in South Korea was produced in Japan.

According to one survey, eight of ten high school students in the Taegu area said they had read or seen dirty magazines or pornographic videos. About half said they saw them at "their friends houses," 32.2 percent in "their own houses" and 10.9 percent in "drinking sites" or "comic book renting rooms." In 1997, seven teenagers (one girl and six boys) were arrested for making their own pornographic video.

The expression of homosexuality in any form was banned on film until 1998. Even so, some South Korean films can be quite explicit sexually. Jung Ji-woo’s Happy End, which won awards in Cannes in 2001, featured some very passionate sex scenes. The 1999 film Yellow Hair was full of orgies and lesbianism. Sun Woo-Jang’s Lies, made the same year, was about the sadomasochistc relationship between a married sculptor and a schoolgirl.

Online Pornography in South Korea

In a society where pornography is hard to come by, the Internet has made it available in a way it was never available before. One survey in 2001 found that 10 percent of 11-year-olds had visited pron sites. Sex on the internet drew a lot of attention when a video on the web of a famous singer appeared. It showed her having sex with her manager. At one point copies of the video were made at a rate of 200,000 a day. Miss Korea in 1988 felt compelled to leave the country when a video of her having sex with a boyfriend appeared on the Internet.

Associated Press reported: “South Korea has an active sex trade - both online and off. According to the South Korean Institute of Criminology, the amount spent on prostitution alone amounted to US$23.6 billion in 2002. In a country where more than 70 percent of homes have high-speed internet connections, access to cyberporn is easy. [Source: Associated Press. April 15, 2005]

“That meant traditional taboos in South Korea's conservative, Confucian-based society had quickly shattered, said Lee Mee-sook, a sociology professor at Paichai University in the central city of Daejeon. "The code of ethics became weak, and people started satisfying their sexual desires through the internet - anonymously," she said.

“On a busy street in the centre of Seoul, "adult" internet cafes aren't hard to find. In the cafes, customers can surf the web in private booths, as opposed to the open rows of computers found in typical cybercafes. Authorities "can't really control it because it's the internet, it's impossible," said Lee, 28, a worker at the Red Box adult internet cafe. "We should have the freedom to see whatever we want."

South Korea Cracks Down on Online Porn in the Mid 2000s

Between January and April 2005, Associated Press reported: “the main prosecutor's office in Seoul has issued arrest warrants for about 100 people charged with spreading obscene material under South Korea's telecommunications law, a crime carrying penalties of up to a year in jail or a nearly US$10,000 fine. In a highly publicised case last month, police in the southern city of Busan arrested the operator of a website that offers a forum to arrange swaps of sex partners. The 36-year-old man is charged with spreading obscene material and remained jailed while the investigation continued, Busan police officer Lee Nam-sik, who is heading the probe, said. [Source: Associated Press. April 15, 2005]

“Web operators insist that adult content appearing on mainstream sites has been rated by the South Korea Media Rating Board, the agency responsible for setting age recommendations for everything from films to computer games, and complain that prosecutors have overstepped their authority. "The portal sites are being accused for what they thought was legal," said Lee Yeun-woo of Kinternet, an organisation that represents popular portals such Yahoo! Korea, Daum and Naver. "The fine actually isn't that much. But we want to prove what those sites did wasn't illegal and want the prosecutors to prove what was wrong."

“To get around laws regulating website content, some sex sites are based on servers outside South Korea. The Ministry of Information and Communications is asking ISPs to block access to them as well. Many South Korean websites require users to enter their national identification card numbers to confirm their age to access adult content. But tech-savvy children can use programs to create false numbers or simply use their parents' IDs instead.

“Given the sheer volume of internet pornography, prosecutors realise they face an uphill battle. They were focusing on larger web portals and other well-known sites first, in the hope that their investigation would draw attention to the issue and serve as a warning, said Kim Dae-hyun, a Seoul prosecutor. "There are so many crimes and so many pornography sites out there," he said. "We cannot deal with all of them with such a limited amount of people here."

South Korea’s Adultery Law

Adultery in South Korea was a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison but most offenders usually received only suspended jail terms and imprisonment was quite rare. Up until 1996, men or women accused by their spouses of committing adultery were arrested immediately, interrogated about the alleged affair and physically detained. In 1996, the prosecutor's office in Seoul announced that people involved in adultery cases would no longer be detained.

Adultery was made illegal in South Korea in 1953, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in jail. Between 2009 and 2014, almost 5,500 people were formerly arraigned on adultery charges, including nearly 900 in 2014. In a 2001 Time sex survey 65 percent of males and 41 percent of females answered yes when asked if they had ever been unfaithful. [Source: The Guardian, Agencies, February 26, 2015; Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, ]

South Korea was one of the few non-Muslim countries to regard marital infidelity as a criminal act. Despite the harsh maximum sentence, few of the accused spent time behind bars. Charges were frequently dropped, as divorcing couples increasingly turn to civil courts and financial settlements to resolve their differences. Whereas 216 people were jailed under the law in 2004, that figure had dropped to 42 by 2008, and since then only 22 have found themselves behind bars, according to figures from the state prosecution office. The downward trend was partly a reflection of changing societal trends in a country where rapid modernisation has frequently clashed with traditionally conservative norms.

“In April 2014, “South Korea blocked the newly launched Korean version of the global adultery hook-up site Ashley Madison, saying it threatened family values. In the past adultery could only be prosecuted on complaint from an injured party, and any case was closed immediately if the plaintiff dropped the charge — a common occurrence that often involved a financial settlement. The law was grounded in a belief that adultery challenged the social order and damaged families, but critics insisted it was an outdated piece of legislation that represented state overreach into people’s private lives.

The law was originally designed to protect the rights of women at a time when marriage afforded them few legal rights, with most having no independent income and divorce carrying enormous social stigma. It aimed to help wives who were financially dependent on their husbands. The country’s economy was largely agricultural and women had few property rights. More recently, supporters of the law have argued that it preserves conservative family values amid a surge of modernisation.

South Korea Legalizes Adultery in 2015

In 2015, South Korea finally legalized adultery, with the country’s constitutional court saying the state should not intervene in people’s private lives. The Guardian reported: “South Korea’s Constitutional Court has struck down a 60-year-old statute outlawing adultery under which violators faced up to two years in prison. The nine-member bench ruled by seven to two that the law was unconstitutional. “The law is unconstitutional, as it infringes people’s right to make their own decisions on sex and secrecy and freedom of their private life, violating the principle banning excessive enforcement under the constitution,” said constitutional court justice Seo Ki-seok. “Even if adultery should be condemned as immoral, state power should not intervene in individuals’ private lives,” said presiding justice Park Han-Chul. “Public conceptions of individuals’ rights in their sexual lives have undergone changes.” One dissenter, justice Ahn Chang-ho, said the vote would “spark a surge in debauchery”. It was the fifth time the apex court had considered the constitutional legality of the legislation. [Source: The Guardian, Agencies, February 26, 2015; Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, ]

“The debate over its future simmered away for some time, bubbling over from time to time especially if a public figure fell foul of the statute. Such was the case in 2008 when one of the country’s best-known actresses, Ok So-Ri, was given an eight-month suspended sentence for adultery. Ok admitted to having an affair with a singer; her husband, a radio announcer, demanded that she receive the full sentence. Ok had unsuccessfully petitioned the Constitutional Court, arguing that the law amounted to a violation of her human rights in the name of revenge. Five judges voted in her favour — one fewer than the threshold to have the law overturned. She did not spend time in jail. The court had previously deliberated the issue in 1990, 1993 and 2001, and in each case dismissed the effort to have it repealed. In 2008, five of the justices deemed the law to be unconstitutional, arguing that adultery could be condemned on moral grounds but not as a criminal act.

The law “has long lost that relevance,” said Kim Jung-Beom, a lawyer and specialist on family law, before the judgement. “For a start, the number of female ‘offenders’ has increased, and in some ways the law has become a way of naming and shaming women,” Kim said. He also noted that other laws now provided women with greater legal security in their marriages, and a fair division of assets in the event of divorce. Defenders of the statute said its loss would encourage sexual depravity, an argument that Kim said had “not a shred of evidence” as support.

After South Korea legalises adultery, the share price of South Korea’s biggest condom maker, Unidus, surge 15 percent – the daily limit on the country’s Kosdaq market. Unidus produces lines of condoms called Long-Love, Fantasia and Real Touch, as well as “sensual lubricants” and latex medical products such as surgical gloves.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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