“They turn victims into perpetrators and say they did nothing wrong. 59 years ago and now, the court hasn’t changed.”
In a phone call with the JoongAng Ilbo on the 2nd, Choi Mal-ja, 77, vented his anger at the court. Choi was a party to the Gimhae tongue-cutting case, a case that is often cited in self-defence debates. The case, in which a woman cut out the tongue of a man who tried to forcefully kiss her, was instead punished for slander, is a classic example of the extremely limited scope of self-defence in South Korea. When Choi requested a retrial in 2020, the case became widely known as “Me Too after 56 years. However, both the first and second courts rejected Choi’s request for a retrial on the grounds that the case did not qualify for retrial. Only the Supreme Court’s decision remains to be seen.
On 6 May 1964, Choi, then 18, was nearly sexually assaulted by a 21-year-old man she did not know. The man pushed Choi to the ground and climbed on top of her stomach as she followed him to show him the way. When Choi resisted, he pushed her to the ground three times. When she came to, the man had his tongue in her mouth. Choi fled home, unaware that he had bitten the man’s tongue. But the incident didn’t end there: a few days later, the man showed up at Choi’s house with 10 of his friends, holding a knife and threatening to “take responsibility for crippling someone.” Choi’s family sued Noh for home invasion and menacing, and the man sued Choi for slander. The court sentenced the man who attempted to sexually assault Choi to six months in prison, suspended for two years, and Choi to 10 months in prison, suspended for two years. The court did not accept Choi’s claim of self-defence.
‘I didn’t immobilise him’ defence not accepted
In order for self-defence to be recognised under the current law, it must meet all five conditions: (1) there must be a current infringement, (2) it must be unjustified, (3) it must be for the protection of the legal interests of oneself or others, (4) it must be done in self-defence, and (5) there must be substantial reason.
In its ruling, the court acknowledged that Noh knocked Choi down, covered her nose with his hand to force her to open her mouth, and kissed her forcibly, but he did not do so by “immobilising her to prevent her from rebelling.” “Even if the defence was to defend the virginity of the virgin against a forced kiss, a defence such as cutting out the tongue and rendering the offender a mute and crippled person for life is, in the ordinary and objective view, beyond the extent of a substantial defence permitted by law,” the judge said. In other words, the defence was excessive.
The requirements for self-defence established in Korean case law are strict. For example, in 2014, a Korean court sentenced a homeowner to one year and six months in prison and three years of probation for beating a burglar who broke into his home in Wonju, Gangwon Province, with a clothesline, leaving him brain-dead. The court found the landlord guilty, stating that “the first assault was in self-defence, but the subsequent assaults were individual assaults after the end of self-defence, so the intention of self-defence cannot be recognized.” The ruling sparked a backlash from the public, who said, “‘You don’t know what a burglar who enters your home is going to do, so you attack him ‘in moderation'”.
The 1965 Busan District Court judgement convicting Choi Mal-jah. The court found that Choi’s actions were “beyond the bounds of self-defence. [Courtesy of Korea Women’s Telephone].
Why self-defence is harder to prove in sexual assault cases
The court also denied that Noh had committed an unjustified violation against Choi. “Choi exchanged words with the man for 20 minutes and followed him to the crime scene in response to his invitation to walk with him,” the court said, adding that “Choi’s decision to go to the crime scene was made by her own free will, and this can also be recognised as her curiosity about the opposite sex in adolescence.” The implication is that Choi’s behaviour in following the stranger was problematic.
Self-defence cases are a particularly sensitive issue in the context of sexual violence. In order to qualify as self-defence, physical violence committed in the course of resisting to escape sexual assault must first prove that “sexual violence was committed against the victim’s will”. In 1988, a woman bit off her sexual assailant’s tongue and cut it out. The first instance court convicted her for being overly defensive, but the second instance court found her guilty of self-defence. While the ruling remains one of the few cases upholding a woman’s right to defend herself in sexual assault cases, Choi recalled in a media interview, “The way the prosecutor and the assailant’s 먹튀검증lawyer tried to make me feel like I deserved to be raped by questioning my alcohol consumption in court was unbearable.”
Choi also said she suffered constant secondary victimisation during the trial. One prosecutor even suggested that Choi marry her attacker, saying, “If you cripple a healthy man, you should be held accountable.” Judges in the courtroom questioned Choi’s chastity, and she was forced to reenact being forcibly kissed in front of the media and public. “I still can’t sleep when I think about it,” Choi said.
“‘It was a different society then’ court ruling insulting”
After the ruling, Choi was labelled a “daughter who shamed her parents”. Choi, who had been working in a garment factory and hawking her wares on the streets, returned to school at the age of 60 with the help of her family. After completing four years of primary education, Choi enrolled in the Department of Culture and Liberal Arts at the University of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in 2013, where she first encountered the concept of gender violence in a liberal arts course called “Sexual Love Society. “I didn’t know it in the past, but later on I realised that what I had been subjected to was sexual violence,” Choi said. “I learnt later that all people are equal and women’s rights should be respected.” Choi was able to tell her story for the first time when she wrote her graduation thesis at the University of Broadcasting and Telecommunications on the topic of ‘The path I have taken and the path ahead’. The request for a retrial came at the suggestion of a colleague at the university who had been following the process.
Choi’s main argument was that it showed that Noh had not suffered any serious injuries after the incident, such as going to the army with a physical class 1. During the trial, it was revealed that Choi