The statute was not a historical quirk that simply gathered legislative dust. In the past six years, close to 5,500 people have been formally arraigned on adultery charges — including nearly 900 in 2014.
Whereas 216 people were jailed under the law in 2004, that figure had dropped to 42 by 2008, and since then only 22 have found themselves behind bars, according to figures from the state prosecution office.
In April last year, South Korea blocked the newly launched Korean version of the global adultery hook-up site Ashley Madison, saying it threatened family values.
The law was grounded in the belief that adultery challenges social order and damages families, but critics called it an outdated piece of legislation that represented state overreach into people’s private lives.
Such was the case in 2008 when one of the country’s best-known actresses, Ok So-ri, was given an eight-month suspended sentence for adultery.
The court had previously deliberated the issue in 1990, 1993 and 2001, and in each case dismissed the effort to have it repealed.
In 2008, five of the justices deemed the law to be unconstitutional, arguing that adultery could be condemned on moral grounds but not as a criminal act.
“But it has long lost that relevance,” said Kim Jung-Beom, a lawyer and specialist on family law.
He also noted that other laws now provided women with greater legal security in their marriages, and a fair division of assets in the event of divorce.