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Asia : Korean Women Try to Shed Their Second-Class Status

September 27, 1991|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — It was 8-year-old Kim Bu Nam's job each day to fetch water for her family from the well of a neighbor who ran a candy store. One day, Song Baek Gwon, the 35-year-old neighbor, called young Kim into his house and raped her.

Twenty-one years later, following two broken marriages and several months in a mental hospital, Kim returned to her little South Korean farming village and paid a call on Song and his wife. When his wife left the room and Kim was left alone with Song, she pulled out a knife and stabbed him to death.

Kim was arrested and charged with homicide, but her case became a \o7 cause celebre \f7 among women tired of the abuse they have suffered in male-dominated South Korea. "I did not kill a man," Kim told the court, "I killed an animal."

The "Special Committee for Rape Victim Kim Bu Nam," made up of 30 women's groups, including the South Korean branch of the YWCA, filed petitions with the court arguing that Kim had already suffered enough anguish.

In what may be a watershed development, the court this month handed down a lenient, three-year suspended sentence and a requirement that she receive medical treatment. "In the past, women's organizations did no more than raise the issue. Now we are actively committed to seeking solutions," said Lee Mi Kyong, chief consultant at the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and a leader of the committee.

Although Kim's original secrecy about her rape resulted in deep psychological problems--as a young girl, she mumbled to herself and complained of strange ailments--telling her story served only to make matters worse. Her first marriage, at age 22, broke up because she was afraid of letting her husband touch her in bed. When her husband pried out her secret, he deserted her. She remarried but remained troubled and was sent to a mental hospital for treatment.

Before killing Song, Kim first had asked him to pay her medical bills. He gave her $560. But as the story spread through the village, her life became even more hellish, according to her counselors. It was the injustice of Song's continued happiness amid her own growing pain, they said, that finally drove her to kill him.

If Kim's light sentence is seen as a kind of victory, it does little to change the social pressures that spawned the tragedy: the lack of respect for women and the exaggerated importance placed on chastity.

There are an estimated 250,000 rape cases a year in South Korea, according to the nation's Institute of Criminology, but only about 2.2% are reported. "Women are taught to regard their chastity as their very life and, once violated, believe their life is ruined forever," said Lee of the Relief Center.

A more typical reaction to rape than Kim's was that of a 30-year-old woman, raped 10 years earlier, who committed suicide earlier this month by jumping from her apartment building.

Courts have proven to be a poor way for women to get their revenge. Over the last 10 years, on average only 40% of reported rape cases resulted in indictment, and only 33% resulted in prison sentences.

The low status of women in South Korean society makes it difficult to change attitudes. During a National Assembly discussion of state affairs earlier this week, an assemblyman told the female minister for state affairs that she should attack problems with body and soul. When a fellow assemblyman added, "Yes, what would happen if a woman minister took off her clothes and threw her whole body at it?" most of the lawmakers laughed.

The low status of females starts at birth. Women are beginning to abort their unborn daughters so frequently, some experts say, that South Korea's population will soon be heavily weighted in favor of men.

Just a few years ago, four sisters, ages 6 to 13, drank rat poison. Only the youngest girl died. The 13-year-old explained, when she recovered, that "we wanted to make it easier for our father to send our brother to school. He is more important than we are."

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