S. Korean Supreme Court’s inconsistent rulings in Navy sexual assault case draw ire

Posted on : 2022-04-01 17:27 KST Modified on : 2022-04-01 17:27 KST
Two naval officers were charged with sexually assaulting the same victim – one was found guilty and the other innocent
Members of a joint action committee regarding the sexual assault of a sexual minority servicewoman by superior officers in the Navy hold a press conference outside the Supreme Court building in Seoul’s Seocho District on March 31. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Members of a joint action committee regarding the sexual assault of a sexual minority servicewoman by superior officers in the Navy hold a press conference outside the Supreme Court building in Seoul’s Seocho District on March 31. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Controversy has been brewing after the Supreme Court issued inconsistent rulings against two naval officers who were on trial for charges of sexually assaulting the same victim. While one naval officer was handed a guilty verdict, the victim’s direct superior was acquitted.

The Joint Response Committee on Sexual Violence Committed by Navy Superiors Against an LGBT Servicewoman called the court’s decisions an “unbelievable half ruling.”

On Thursday, the Supreme Court’s first division struck down a not guilty verdict for the Navy captain (a commander at the time) surnamed Kim charged with inflicting or causing bodily injury by raping a subordinate female officer, and sent the case back to the High Court for Armed Forces for a retrial. On the other hand, a different division of the Supreme Court found the lieutenant commander, surnamed Park, not guilty of the same charges.

Park is accused of sexually harassing a female officer, who was his direct subordinate in 2010, in excess of 10 times and sexually assaulting her twice. It was discovered that when the victim reported what had happened to Kim, the captain and commanding officer, he sexually assaulted her under the guise of offering her counseling.

In July 2017, seven years after the incident, the victim sued both Kim and Park on charges including bodily injury due to rape under the Military Criminal Act. The Navy indicted Park and Kim on the same charges in September of that year.

In the first trial, the Navy General Military Court sentenced Park to 10 years and Kim to 8 years in prison. The court recognized the charges against the officers, saying, “Although a long time has passed since the crime took place, [the victim is still able to] specify the dates and locations of the crimes from memory.”

However, in the second trial the following year, the High Court for Armed Forces acquitted Park and Kim, saying the victim’s testimony alone was not sufficient to prove the allegations while also questioning the accuracy of the victim’s memory, making note of the seven years that had transpired since the alleged incident.

The Supreme Court’s judgments, however, proved to differ depending on which judge was hearing the case. This is because the same crime against the same victim can be judged differently based on the credibility of testimony, which is ultimately determined by the presiding judge.

The first division of the Supreme Court said that, from the investigation stage to the courtroom, the victim’s statements have been “consistent” and that there have been “no irrationalities or contradictions.” As a result, the judge found the decision made by the lower court “wrong” and restored the guilty verdict against Kim.

However, things went differently in the Supreme Court’s third division. According to the third division, “the specific circumstances of the case, the relationship with the victim, and the victim's testimony are all different” in the two cases, meaning that it could arrive at a different verdict than the first division. With that, it upheld the not guilty verdict for Park.

“The Supreme Court acknowledged the lower court's judgment that there were some inconsistencies or contradictions in the victim's statement in Park's case,” an official at the Supreme Court said.

Ten organizations, including the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and the Military Human Rights Center, led by the joint response committee, held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court on Thursday.

“What has the Supreme Court been doing for three years and four months? Were they making us wait for so long for the verdict just to reconfirm the High Court for Armed Forces’ acquittal?” the groups asked, condemning the court’s decision.

“In the process of asking her superior for help regarding the sexual assault committed by the first perpetrator, the second perpetrator [also] committed acts of sexual violence,” said Park In-suk, the victim’s legal representative. “Looking at the two cases separately, one [trial] acknowledged the credibility of the victim's testimony, while the other denied it,” Park said.

Park called the court’s judgment “wrongful,” going on to say, “The Supreme Court should have merged these two cases so that they could be judged by one court.”

The joint response committee read a statement from the victim at the press conference.

“I cannot understand the judgment of the court that said my memory and pain I suffered that day and all those days was insufficient and thus didn’t recognize their credibility,” the statement read. “Today, I have died once again as a result of the court’s judgment of reversal and dismissal [of my case].”

By Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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