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Asia

Seoul puts castration to the test

A frightening increase in sex crimes in South Korea has led to the first offender sentenced to chemical castration. But critics say castration is a human right violation and won't effectively prevent sexual violence.

After a brutal gang rape and murder created a storm of outrage in India, some there suggested chemical castration of sex offenders as a means of reducing sexual violence in the country. Chemical castration entails the use of drugs to reduce sexual desire by suppressing the release of sex hormones. It was said that dangerous criminals have psychological disorders that make them unable to control themselves and castration could alter their hormones and thereby allow them to live without posing a threat.

South Korean society has in recent years been shocked by a rising number of horrific sex crimes, which have created widespread public concern over the safety of women and children. In July 2011, South Korea became the first Asian country to adopt chemical castration as a means of punishment under its code of criminal law. On January 3, a district court handed down the country's first ever sentence of chemical castration to a sex offender.

The 31-year-old male perpetrator, identified only by his surname Pyo, was convicted of raping several teenage girls, then using photos and videos of the girls to blackmail them. The fact that the girls were minors and that Pyo had a history of repeated sex crimes amplified the calls for him to be the first to receive this severe punishment. Pyo's chemical castration will last for a period of three years. He will need to make his personal information public for ten years and wear an electronic tracking device for twenty years.

The background to choosing castration

Symbolic picture showing the shadow of a woman on a wall (Photo: (c) www.BilderBox.com,Erwin Wodicka)

Rising sex crimes creates concern over the safety of women and children

The conviction comes after extensive discussions over how to handle those convicted of extreme sexual violence. Recent years have seen an alarming rise in sex crimes in the country. From 13,396 cases reported in 2007, offenses climbed to 19,498 in 2011 - a 45 percent rise, according to National Police Agency data. The same body of data showed that the attacker wasn't arrested in 11.2 percent of sex crimes recorded during the period.

This increase has left the South Korean public searching for ways to prevent such crimes from occurring. Will chemical castration be an effective means of accomplishing that?

Perhaps. Drugs administered to Pyo will dull his sexual urges and make it impossible for him to sustain an erection. Supporters of castration argue that it is therefore a reliable way of neutralizing a dangerous criminal and preventing him from reoffending.

Experiences in other countries

In Germany, sex offenders can volunteer to have themselves surgically castrated, which means physical removal of testicles through surgery. In a February 2011 report, the Council of Europe called surgical castration "degrading" and called on the German government to discontinue the practice.

Chemical castration is practiced in a number of US states, as well as in Denmark, Poland and France. It has also been approved in Russia's parliament.

In South Korea, the castration is done without the offender's consent. This could lessen the measure's effectiveness, according to Hannam University law professor Yoon Yong-cheol. "The criminal should give his consent in order for castration to be successful. When consent is given, the treatment is shown to be more successful," Yoon told DW.

Addressing the causes

Castration has been referred to as a band-aid solution and its critics say that it doesn't address the root causes of sexual violence. In South Korea, society is still male-dominated and sexualized images of women are common in music and television. Also, castration only dulls sexual urges for a temporary period and doesn't have any lasting effect on the impulses that drove the offender to act out in the first place.

Symbolic picture showing a disturbed person banging on glas

Seeking treatment for mental illness is largely taboo

Some critics also call castration a violation of human rights, particularly in this case because it is done without the convicted man's consent. There are also questions over whether government should have the right to intervene so consequentially in someone's sexuality, even a convicted deviant.

Treatment before punishment

Many in Korea argue that more rehabilitative measures should be made available to people suffering from mental health problems. There are government-funded mental health centers in every district. People who are suffering can seek help at no cost, but a cultural aversion can prevent this, according to Kim Hyun-chung, a psychiatrist at the National Medical Center in Seoul.

"There's a strong stigma around getting care for your mental health. If people are interested, there are ways for them to seek help, but if they aren't, there no way to force them. They're left to deal with their problems on their own," says Kim.

Even supporters of castration are aware that it doesn't provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of sexual violence. According to Dr. Kim, "We need to stop looking at mental health problems as individual problems. We need to acknowledge the social nature of these problems and solve them as a society."

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