Let's Talk About Infidelity in Korea

Let's Talk About Infidelity in Korea

The biggest topic in Korea last week wasn't Covid but the private life of a woman who had been offered a prominent political position in the Minjoo Party.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

Covid infections are on the rise, and hospitals are filling up, but the talk of Seoul all last week wasn't the Coronavirus, but a mother of two children.

Cho Dong-youn, a 39-year-old former army major, was appointed to the position of the ruling center-left Minjoo party's presidential campaign co-chairperson on Tuesday, only to resign three days later. Her political future collapsed under the accusation that she had a son with another man in 2011 while married to her first husband, whom she didn't tell that the child wasn't his.

Kang Yong-seok, a well-known rightwing YouTuber and former conservative lawmaker first aired the allegation on the day Cho made her political debut. When the Minjoo threatened to sue him for defamation, the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo stepped into the fray, publishing what it called proof that Cho's first husband had commissioned a DNA test to determine the child's paternity. According to the paper, he also secured a court ruling back in 2014 that he isn't the father.

A married woman having a child out of wedlock and lying to her husband that it's his. If true, it sounds like the plot of a daytime soap opera, but is this worth talking about for the whole nation?

Yes, it is in Korea, and the discovery has launched a thousand think pieces and commentaries on social media, not to mention posts on countless online discussion forums. Infidelity is clearly no private matter as far as many Koreans are concerned.

Consider that in June a story made the round that a male manager and a female entry-level employee at Kookmin Bank, one of Korea's four biggest banks, were having an affair. The woman apparently had a fiancé, who discovered her infidelity and proceeded to send the proof to all their friends and acquaintances. It became national gossip.

That same month another scandal was launched after a single picture of two women and a man spread online. It was alleged that two Samsung Electronics employees (a man and a woman) were committing adultery, and that his wife confronted them in the lobby of the company building.

That second incident turned out to be untrue, but it was yet another sign that this country is obsessed with other people's private lives. Just think about the incredible brouhaha that erupted in 2017 when famed director Hong Sang-soo and actress Kim Min-hee declared their love for each other. Hong was (and still is) a married man, and the backlash against the couple was swift. Since then, Kim has not appeared in a single mainstream film or TV drama production.

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When such details, both small and large, routinely get splashed on an untold number of blogs and even news websites, it's hard not to learn a few things about all manner of unfaithful Koreans, famous or otherwise, even if one has no interest.

The case against Cho is, however, complex. The Minjoo recruited her in a political stunt—Korean parties often offer prominent jobs to political novices with impressive CVs as a way to project an image that they care about talent. Cho, a Harvard-educated female military officer-turned-university professor, was perfect for boosting the Minjoo's lackluster fortunes in the run up to the presidential election next spring.

(The party's presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung is neck-in-neck against his conservative counterpart Yoon Seok-youl in the most recent Gallup Korea poll.)

Kang the rightwing YouTuber and conservatives sought to damage Cho and by extension the Minjoo Party, and they have been successful, but it has people asking whether it's right to make politicians' private lives fodder for public debate.

A noted progressive lawyer Kwon Gyeong-ae lamented on Facebook: "The constitution guarantees freedom of privacy. Even public figures have no obligation to endure a public trial where their private life with no connection to public matters gets exposed down to the last thread. Even politicians have the right not to have their private life violated."

The right-leaning Joongang Ilbo naturally has a different take. It published an opinion by its own columnist that "the ruling party's election campaign co-chairperson is a politically important post, and it's not appropriate for an unethical criminal to hold it."

Writer O Byeong-sang continued: "Bearing a child out of wedlock took place before 2015, when the criminal charge of adultery was ruled unconstitutional. It means that when it happened, what Cho did was criminal."

Criminal or not, Cho's history and the Minjoo's seeming ignorance of it prior to appointing her to a prominent position have come under fierce criticism from across the country. Even on a largely pro-Minjoo site favored by married women, a popular post declared, "This heralds the end of the Minjoo."

In forums known for masculinist sympathies, the view dominates that Cho willfully deceived her husband so that he would financially support her and her child fathered by another man.

To be sure, there is something hypocritical and maybe even sexist about the attacks on Cho. Kang Yong-seok who exposed her past is himself a married man and was embroiled in an adultery scandal with a popular blogger six years ago. Despite damning evidence and overwhelming moral condemnation, he carries on with a career that partly involves calling other people out for infidelity. Talk about a pot calling a kettle black.

Then again, many Minjoo supporters have been smearing the conservative opposition candidate Yoon's wife with the allegation that she might have worked as a bar hostess in the past. Now they are rushing to defend Cho, but this seems to be less about believing the allegations against her are false than protecting the party.

In fact, there is something legitimate to be said about keeping Cho out of politics. If she could lie about something so big as who the father of her own child is (to her then-husband no less), what else could and would she lie about if she has power? Is this really just a private matter, or is it an indication of her personal character and lack of integrity?

Many Koreans would be inclined to believe the latter.

Just last year a Korean friend of mine discovered that her Turkish boyfriend, a junior executive at Samsung Electronics, was cheating on her. She was debating whether to inform the company.

My friend was of the opinion that her boyfriend's bosses should consider his private indiscretion in evaluating his fitness as an employee. There is a phrase from the classic Chinese text Daxue 大學 (The Great Learning)—widely cited even in Korea: susin jega chiguk pyeongcheonha 修身齐家治国平天下. First cultivate one's body, then put one's household in order, only then aspire to rule one's country, and finally can one pacify the world.

Personal conduct reflects one's ability to do bigger things in life, so goes the conventional Korean way of thinking. From this view, Cho clearly didn't have her household in order, and is therefore unfit to become a politician.  

But twists keep coming, much like in any K-drama. On Sunday Cho's lawyer announced that she had lied about her son's paternity to her then-husband because the child had been conceived as a result of rape:

"In August 2010 former chairwoman [of the Minjoo election campaign] Cho Dong-youn experienced unwanted pregnancy due to unspeakable sexual violence by a third party. [...] At the time Cho's marriage was already practically over, but she gave birth out of the religious conviction that she shouldn't extinguish a life inside her, and decided to bear alone the responsibility of raising the child."

I will for sure keep following how this story develops.

Cover: Cho Dong-youn, former Minjoo election campaign co-chairwoman who resigned under allegations of having a child out of wedlock (source: namu.wiki)

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