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Adultery website tests the law in South Korea

Marital infidelity punishable with prison time yet still widespread


Canada-based adultery hookup service AshleyMadison.com — slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair” — drew 46,000 people within a week of launching a website last month in South Korea, where marital infidelity is a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

The company, which claims more than 25 million subscribers in 35 countries, said it was targeting a membership of around 500,000 in South Korea — 1 percent of the population.

The site is no stranger to Asia, having already launched in Japan, India and Hong Kong, but South Korea offers particular challenges given a 1953 statute that criminalizes adultery.

The company’s CEO, Noel Biderman, believes the law is “hopelessly outdated” but still heeded legal advice not to attend the South Korean launch in person. He insists the website simply facilitates an activity that is universal and crosses all social and geographical boundaries.

But not every Asian government sees that as a reason to welcome AshleyMadison. Singapore’s Media Development Authority banned the website in November, saying it constituted an attack on “our family values and public morality.”

Like Singapore, South Korea is modern but socially conservative, particularly when it comes to the Internet. Last year, about 23,000 South Korean Web pages were deleted and 63,000 were blocked at the request of the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), a largely government-appointed body. The main targets were pornography, prostitution and gambling.

KCSC official Song Myung-hoon said the commission had been “closely monitoring” AshleyMadison since its launch. “We know this website is problematic and are discussing internally what to do with it,” Song said. He acknowledged there is nothing inherently criminal about the site.

South Korea’s adultery law is not much of a deterrent, and conviction usually results in a suspended sentence rather than actual prison time. As an offense, it can only be prosecuted on complaint, and any case is closed as soon as the plaintiff drops the charge.

Whereas 216 people were given prison terms under the law in 2004, that figure had dropped to 42 by 2008. But it remains on the statute books despite half a dozen referrals for review to the country’s Constitutional Court, and there is no great groundswell of opinion to have it removed.

In 2011, a Christian pastor was jailed for 18 months for having a decadelong affair with a woman whose wedding he had officiated at, after her husband named them both in an adultery complaint.

Socially conservative groups have already denounced the Korean-language version of AshleyMadison.

“It’s ridiculous, legally and morally,” said Lee Kum-sook, a member of the Seoul-based civic group Healthy Family. “Adultery is a punishable crime here, although people still do it secretly. But promoting it so openly on the Internet will make the problem even worse.”

The fact that married people secretly have affairs — even when illegal — is a cornerstone of the company’s argument for embracing AshleyMadison. It rejects suggestions that the website could be held responsible for a married woman who finds herself on trial for having an affair with someone she met on the site.

“The point is that people are going to have affairs no matter what avenues are open or closed to them. So why not provide them with a discreet way to do it?” Biderman said. “It’s an alternative to affairs in the workplace, which risk exposure, humiliation and dismissal. If anything, our website will help keep people out of the courts.”

There was no doubting the enthusiasm of the early members of the website’s South Korean version. A profile for a married woman that was drafted and posted by AFP garnered 60 responses in 24 hours from men ranging in age from their 20s to late 50s — nearly all of them self-identified as married.

While some decided that sending naked selfies with their messages was the best way forward, others looked to conjure up some sympathy. “I’m a married man and my life is always so tense because I have to take responsibility for five members of my family,” wrote one 55-year-old. “I want a girlfriend. How far we can go depends on we feel for each other.”

Song Myung-hoon from KCSC indicated that the commission’s monitoring of AshleyMadison was partly focused on whether subscribers might use the site for illegal activities. “We can shut down the website if there is evidence of anything like online prostitution, for example,” Song said.

Biderman says the site’s own moderators would block anyone found engaging in anything like prostitution, and added that other members were quick to complain if they felt they were being solicited.

“This is not an online brothel. It’s a social network for like-minded people,” he said. “I am not in the sex business. I am not selling sex.”