Violence Against Women
By Jason Lim
In Korea's history, there were times when the body of an already-dead person would be dug up and decapitated. This was an official punishment that was reserved for persons who were convicted post-mortem of high treason or truly despicable moral corruption.
One would think that such irrational, vengeful punishment would have disappeared by now in today's modern, progressive Korea. If so, one would be wrong because the June 4 judgment by Korea's Supreme Court against the estate of actress Choi Jin-sil, who committed suicide last October, is akin to digging her up and killing her all over again, along with the rights of millions of silent victims of domestic violence in Korea.
This is the story in a nutshell. For the purposes of this story and simplicity, allow me to convert the Korean currency amount into U.S. dollars by using the exchange rate of 1,000 Won for $1.
In March 2004, Shinhan Engineering and Construction paid Choi, one of the best known actresses in Korea, $250,000 to be the face of their newly constructed apartment complex. The contract stipulated that Choi would pay Shinhan $500,000 in punitive damages in case she did anything to reflect badly upon the social and moral reputation of the construction company during the contract period.
In August 2004, Choi was beaten by her husband ― from whom she was separated ― during an argument at her apartment in the middle of the night, causing visible bruises and marks to her face.
As a famous baseball pitcher, Choi's then-husband, Jo Sung-mino, was one of the premier athletes in Korea. In fact, their wedding in 2000 was called the ``wedding of the century" in Korea, matching up the most loved actress in Korea with the best-known and attractive professional athlete. It was a bona-fide fairytale.
Unfortunately, they didn't live happily ever after and divorced in September 2004. Although they had two children together, they were already living apart by 2003, with rumors of problems surfacing way before then. Inevitably, their marriage troubles became fodder for the insatiable media who followed their every move and public fights, including the one in August 2004 in which Jo came to visit Choi in the middle of the night that ended up in a violent argument and resulted in Choi's apartment being torn apart, with Choi's face left swollen and bruised.
Afterwards, Jo went to the media and claimed that it was a fair fight in which she gave as good as she got. Considering that Jo was a professional baseball pitcher and Choi was 5' 4" and 99 lbs, I don't know why Jo wasn't laughed out of Korea for his claims. Nevertheless, to refute them, Choi felt compelled to disclose her bruised face and damaged apartment to the public. This is what got her in trouble with Shinhan Engineering and Construction.
Shinhan argued that Choi failed to live up to her contractual obligation to maintain social dignity by disclosing how she had been beaten by her husband and thus reflected negatively on the image of its apartment development. Therefore, Shinhan sued Choi for breach of contract and demanded $3 million: $500,000 for punitive damages, $400,000 for compensation and $2.1 million for the funds already spent on the advertising campaign.
In the first legal round, Choi was actually ordered to pay Shinhan the $250,000 that she had received as a modeling fee. However, she appealed to the High Court, which declared that she need not pay anything because, ``It's difficult to see how Choi could have committed social and moral defamation (against Shinhan) for being arbitrarily and violently beaten. Even her post-incident disclosure can be justified as an attempt by Choi to rebut Jo's claims."
Ok, reason finally rules, right? Wrong.
Shinhan appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the High Court's ruling. The Supreme Court judgment, which was arrived at by a team consisting of four male judges, declared that, ``Since the reason that an advertiser hires an athlete or celebrity for advertisement is to create demand for its products by building off the athlete or celebrity's positive image, if they failed to maintain their dignity even despite having contractually stipulated to do so, they cannot avoid responsibility for compensation and punitive damages."
In short, Choi failed to maintain her dignity because she got herself beat up by her husband and talked about it publicly. Which begs the question: Would Choi still be held liable for being undignified if she had revealed that she had been a victim of a violent crime by a stranger? Probably not. It was only because this was a domestic violence case in which her husband was the perpetrator that Choi was considered undignified.
There are several messages that this judgment sends to victims of domestic violence, all of them devastating: One, domestic violence is a shameful topic that should be kept in the home; two, even if you are beaten, shut up and suffer in silence; three, it's not dignified to reveal that you are a victim of domestic violence; four, you are partly to blame in any case.
Ironically enough, Korea's closet ally, the United States, just created the new position of White House Adviser on Violence Against Women, and appointed a seasoned advocate, Lynn Rosenthal, to fill it. In announcing the appointment, Vice President Joe Biden lauded Rosenthal for devoting her life to creating an environment where violence against women is not ignored and perpetrators are held accountable. Perhaps Korea can borrow a page from Obama's playbook and begin redefining the meaning of dignity when it comes to domestic violence.
Jason Lim is the managing editor of the Korea Policy Review published at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.