K-Pop Suicide Sparks a Reckoning on Revenge Porn, Sexual Assault

Jihye Lee

(Bloomberg) -- The suicide of a popular South Korean singer has prompted calls in the country to overhaul laws on sexual assault and to more harshly punish revenge porn.

Koo Hara, 28, was found dead at her home in Seoul on Sunday. Her last message on Instagram showed her staring into a camera lens from beneath blankets on her bed with a message of “good night.” Police say a note was found at the scene in which she expressed hopelessness.

Many in South Korea were already aware of her past that included assault by a former boyfriend who she alleged was threatening to release a sex video of her. The two most popular hashtags on social media in South Korea this week called for punishment of the ex-boyfriend and for the definition of sexual assault to be revamped.

A petition filed with the president’s office demanding changes to laws had one quarter of a million signatures. Lawmakers said it is time to push forward measures stalled in Parliament that make it easier to impose harsh penalties on those who engage in revenge porn or clandestinely take sexually charged videos.

Liberal lawmaker Lee Jung-mi of the minor Justice Party said in a social media post that Koo’s death shows that change is needed because the nation “cannot neglect illegal filming and circulation of videos.”

Lee in September 2018 introduced a bill to revise how South Korea’s criminal law defines rape. She said recent verdicts on sexual crime show the current standards don’t focus on consent but how much “resistance” there was from the victim.

President Moon Jae-in has called for a wide-ranging investigation of sex offenses linked to the entertainment industry and ordered the reopening of inquiries into past allegations. He issued a decree in June 2017 that set punishment of up to five years in prison, with the measure mostly pertaining to filming through hidden cameras.

Moon has not commented on Koo’s death or on revamping sexual violence laws. On Nov. 19 he did comment on women’s social status saying, “It’s still quite a dark reality compared to the rest of the world. I can tell you that I will pay more attention on gender equality.”

Some of those who are fighting for changes to the laws say they are frustrated with the pace of change.

“The current justice system sends a message to women that it will never be able to protect them,” said Yun Dan-woo, a writer and and women’s rights activist.

Recent Cases

Some recent cases illustrate critics’ concerns. In May 2018, a male judge ruled that a man wasn’t guilty of raping a woman who walked to a motel with him, according to the Law Talk legal journal and local media. Surveillance video presented as evidence showed the man pulling the woman. The judge acknowledged she had rejected sex but ruled this wasn’t a case where she was in danger, the reports said.

In a case in November, a male judge found a man not guilty of rape even though he had sex with a woman against her will. The judge ruled she gave consent by holding hands and giving the defendant an extra piece of meat at a restaurant, according to the legal journal and local media.

Koo, who used the stage name HaRa, was a member of the group Kara, which had nearly a decade-long run as a top act in the notoriously fickle K-pop music industry. One of group’s biggest songs, “Step,” garnered nearly 100 million views on YouTube, helping Koo win fame in Japan, China and other major markets outside of Asia.

In Koo’s case, a judge found her boyfriend guilty of assault yet acquitted him of illicitly filming Koo and trying to blackmail her. On Friday, dozens of people rallied in front of the Seoul District Court, demanding that the judge in the case resign.

K-Pop’s Dark Side: Assault, Prostitution, Suicide, and Spy cams

Although the laws on clandestine recording could be applied to revenge porn -- posting without permission explicit images of individuals that may be taken in acts including consensual sex -- that sort of prosecution is almost unheard of in South Korea. More than 40 U.S. states have laws banning the practice as do other countries.

Proponents of more stringent measures say they want to act now while Koo’s death is fresh in the public mind and may give a push for change.

“Korean society has this misconception of rape of always being done by some random monster who comes out of nowhere in a dark alley at night, which is why it doesn’t acknowledge that someone close and intimate is more likely to be the perpetrator,” said Claire Park, an activist at the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center.

(Adds rally in on Friday in Seoul in the 14th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Niluksi Koswanage at nkoswanage@bloomberg.net, ;Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, Jon Herskovitz, Jodi Schneider

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