SEOUL — A series of highly publicized child rape cases in which the defendants were widely seen as receiving lenient sentences has outraged South Koreans, who have called for tougher penalties for sex crimes, including the castration of repeat offenders.
The most prominent case involves a 57-year-old habitual offender sentenced to 12 years for raping a first-grader and flushing detergent into her body to destroy evidence of the crime.
Prosecutors had sought life imprisonment in the attack, which left the girl with severe intestinal damage.
Responding to newspaper editorials and Internet campaigns decrying the brutality of the crime, President Lee Myung-bak called on the government to make public all possible information on repeat child rapists.
Lee told a recent Cabinet meeting that he felt "wretched as president that such a crime should have occurred."
"I feel it appropriate that such grave felons should be separated from society for the rest of their lives."
Officials want to expand the sentencing limit for sex crimes, which is 15 years or less for most offenses. Lawmakers are exploring the legality of chemical castration and are reviewing ways to expand the offender database.
Sex crimes -- especially those against children -- are on the rise in South Korea, according to police statistics, leading many activists to question the government's commitment to punishing repeat offenders.
The number of sexual abuse victims younger than 6 has exceeded 150 a year for three years, according to data from the National Police Agency.
For the first seven months of this year, only 40% of the approximately 6,000 suspects investigated for child sexual abuse were prosecuted. Of those convicted, less than 1% received life sentences. Nearly half got off with fines and 30% got suspended terms, government statistics show.
The case of the 57-year-old child rapist particularly angered the public after details emerged that the man had rinsed the girl's ruptured organs with detergent after the rape in a church bathroom. Tens of thousands of people have signed Internet petitions calling for the suspect to be retried and for officials to overrule the sentence, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The man, who spent three years in jail for a 1983 rape, is required to wear an electronic bracelet for seven years.
The chief justice of South Korea's Supreme Court recently told a newspaper that the court was beyond reproach.
"The judicature should not be swayed by public opinion, or it will lose its credibility," Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon said.
But he acknowledged the unpopularity of the sentencing guidelines. In the most recent case, he said, "we have come to realize the possible gap between the criminal punishment as stated by the law and the legal common sense of the general public."
Local news media recently reported details of a case involving a father who raped his 12-year-old daughter and was sentenced to two years.
At the man's August sentencing in Ulsan, about 200 miles southeast of Seoul, the victim submitted a two-page letter to the judge in which she expressed anger at her father and referred to herself as a vulnerable flower.
"He rooted out the flower from a garden and threw it away," the girl wrote. "I don't know why the court sentenced him to a two-year prison term. He has trampled my dreams. He deserves a death sentence."
Activists say the government needs to get tough on offenders.
"It's sad that people take this issue seriously only when media coverage comes out," said Choi Da-eun, manager of Child Watch Korea in Seoul. "These crimes happen every day. The number of child sex crime cases is on the rise. Not only cases involving girls are rising, but those involving boys are increasing over the years."
Jang Se-yeon, a nurse at the Seoul Sunflower Children Center, which treats abused children, said many victims distrust a justice system in which few child abuse cases end with charges being filed.
"People aren't sure whether the offender will be punished or not," she said. "That just increases their anguish."
Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.