At an appeals court in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 2006, a school official was convicted of raping a 13-year-old deaf girl and sentenced to one year in prison. When the verdict came, an outraged middle-aged man, also deaf, let out an incomprehensible cry from the galley, signaling frantically with sign language.
“It was clear that the man was shouting, ‘This is wrong! This is wrong!”’ Lee Ji-won, a newspaper intern, wrote in her blog later that day under the subject line, “I saw the foul underside of our society.”
The man was forcibly removed for disrupting the courtroom. And that might have been the end of it. Except that the intern’s blog inspired a best-selling author, Gong Ji-young, to write a novel based on the sexual assaults at the Inhwa School for the hearing impaired, the school’s attempts to conceal the abuses and the victims’ struggle for justice.
Now, a film based on that novel — “Dogani,” or “The Crucible” — has roiled South Korea.
Since its release on Sept. 22, 4.4 million people, including President Lee Myung-bak — nearly a 10th of the country’s population — have seen it. The film has tapped into widespread anger over official reluctance to take sexual crimes seriously, and over how justice is served, or not, in South Korea.
The cabinet has vowed to inspect all facilities for the disabled and minors to ferret out teachers with records of sexual abuse. The head of the Supreme Court admitted that “society is simmering with resentment” toward a legal system long criticized as “yujeonmujoe mujeonnyujoe,” or “not guilty for the rich, guilty for the poor.”
Lawmakers are pushing for tougher penalties for sexual crimes. The Education Ministry has said it will shut down Inhwa School.
For a low-budget movie barred to people under 18, “The Crucible” has had an extraordinary impact.
In a way, that reaction seems at odds with South Korean society. Here, disregard for the disabled is so entrenched that the subway authorities began installing elevators for wheelchair access only in recent years following protests by the handicapped in which they chained themselves to the tracks with signs that read, “We want to use the subway too.”
“What people see in the movie is a capsule version of their society,” said Chun Sang-chin, a sociologist at Sogang University. “There is anger over how the strong bully the weak, despair over how the system protects the well-connected, and fear that the same can happen to the rest of us.”
In the Inhwa case, four teachers and administrators — including its principal and his brother — were convicted of raping or sexually molesting at least eight students aged 7 to 22, some orphaned or mentally disabled, from 2000 to 2004.
But only two of the four served any jail time. The principal was found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl and taking a bribe of 3 million won, or $2,630, from a teacher. But he was freed when an appeals court suspended his sentence.
“The Crucible” graphically depicts sexual and physical violence against minors. But just as sensational is the cynical collusion it portrays among the elite of the movie’s fictional town of Mujin. A judge gives a lenient sentence to defendants represented by a lawyer who until recently was his colleague on the bench. A police detective pockets cash from a school principal who is both a church leader and sadistic rapist.
Scenes in the film showing demonstrations in support of the defendants mirror events in the Inhwa case.
“When court was in session, members of the Protestant church the principal and his family attended rallied outside the courthouse,” said Park Chan-dong, a human rights advocate who campaigned for the children. “They called us ‘evil’ and ‘Satan’ and loudly prayed that ‘hell fires’ would consume us.”
Judges, defense lawyers and police detectives involved in the Inhwa case have denied any misconduct. But to many here, some of the movie scenes look all too plausible.
“I wanted to show that, although our society has developed a lot, barbarous things still happen,” said the film’s director, Hwang Dong-hyeok.
Underneath the vibrancy of South Korea’s young democracy runs an unease about what many consider deepening inequality — a problem the government recognized last year when it listed “building a fair society” among its top policy goals.
Kim Yeh-ram, a college student who saw the film, said its release had “added fuel” to public outrage. The release followed a series of high-profile incidents that bolstered accusations that the state was failing to protect the vulnerable while some of the rich and powerful acted as if they were above the law.
Last year, for example, Chey Cheol-won, 41, a trucking company owner and cousin of one of the country’s richest men, was convicted of hitting a 52-year-old former union activist 13 times with an aluminum baseball bat while his executives watched. He then wrote out a 20 million won check on a company account and threw it in the victim’s face. Mr. Chey received a suspended sentence.
The number of sexual crimes against mentally or physically disabled people reported to the police was 320 last year, up from 199 in 2007, according to the National Police Agency. But the government estimates that fewer than 10 percent of victims report sexual crimes to the police for fear of being shamed in public trials.
In South Korea, sex crimes generally can be prosecuted only if the victim presses charges, and charges are often dropped if a financial settlement is reached between the defendant and the plaintiff. Two years ago, the law was revised to require that all sex crimes involving alleged victims aged 18 or under be prosecuted, even if they have not themselves pressed charges. Following the uproar over “The Crucible,” the government has promised to extend this to cases where the alleged victims are mentally or physically disabled.
When sexual assault cases involving victims aged 13 and under come to trial now, roughly 95 percent of defendants are found guilty, but penalties are weak, with about a third receiving prison terms and the rest receiving suspended sentences or assessed fines. Half of the teachers who were convicted of sexually assaulting their students or others were given nothing more severe than a pay cut or a short suspension, according to the Education Ministry.
“Many of the facilities for the disabled are stamping grounds for human rights abusers,” said Ser In-whan, secretary general of the Korean Federation of Organizations of the Disabled. “It’s not just Inhwa School.”
The Inhwa case came to light in 2005 when a teacher alerted human rights groups. For that, the teacher was fired.
The police began an investigation four months later, only after former students talked to a national TV station. As the Gwangju city government and school board tossed the case back and forth, students and parents staged a sit-in for eight months outside their offices, calling for justice.
In a movie scene that highlights the disconnect between the authorities and the disabled, a judge slams his gavel and shouts “Silence!” to deaf viewers in the galley using sign language. In the early days of the Gwangju trial, no sign-language translation was provided in the courtroom, Mr. Park said.
Im Eun-jeong, a prosecutor in the case, wrote in her diary at the time of a courtroom filled with “deaf children crying out silently to society with their sign language.”
She noted in the diary, which she recently posted online, “Their anger and despair made every hair on my body stand up.”