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S. Korea votes to legalize chemical castration

South Korea's parliament votes to legalize chemical castration as punishment for convicted child sex offenders after a series of violent assaults sparked outrage nationwide.
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Korea's parliament voted Tuesday to legalize chemical castration as punishment for convicted child sex offenders after a series of violent assaults sparked outrage nationwide.

The bill was first introduced in 2008 in response to a high-profile case in which a 58-year-old man raped and assaulted an 8-year-old girl. The attack caused widespread revulsion and left the victim with lasting physical injuries.

Government policies, including the installation of more security personnel near school grounds as well as multiple surveillance cameras, have not prevented a series of similar cases.

A 33-year-old man who raped and murdered a 13-year-old girl in February was sentenced to death last week. In another high-profile case, a 45-year-old man allegedly kidnapped a student from her elementary school and raped her in the basement of a church.

South Korean legislators at the National Assembly passed the bill by a vote of 137-13. More than 140 lawmakers either did not make a choice or did not vote. The legislation would take effect a year after being signed into law.

The legislation, which requires the South Korean president's signature to become law, would allow judges to sentence adult sex offenders who victimize minors under 16 and have been diagnosed as sexual deviants to chemical castration.

It was unclear if President Lee Myung-bak would sign it. He is on a visit to Latin America and his office would not comment.

The procedure involves the administration of testosterone-suppressing hormones intended to curb sexual drive. Offenders would also receive behavioral and psychological therapies.

Dr. Howard Zonana, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said questions remain on such treatment.

"It's hard to say with a degree of exactitude on the effectiveness of chemical castration," Zonana said.

He said that for it to be effective, it must first be determined whether offenders are pedophiliacs, who have a strong attraction to children, or non-sexual deviants possessing other underlying psychiatric disorders that cause them to act violently.

If signed into law, South Korea would become the first country in Asia to legalize chemical castration, according to Yoo Jin-hee, an aide to Park Young-sun, a member of the assembly's Legislation and Judiciary Committee.

In the United States, several states including Louisiana, California, Oregon and Arizona have laws allowing chemical castration. In Europe, countries including Britain, Denmark and Sweden offer chemical castration drugs to sex offenders to control sexual urges on a voluntary basis. Last year, Poland legalized the procedure for offenders who rape minors under age 15 or close relatives. It is administered on court order.

The measure is just one of a long line that South Korea has turned to after a spate of assaults. Parents formed monitoring groups to escort their children to and from schools. The government enforced the wearing of electronic ankle bracelets to monitor the movements of sex offenders and endorsed disclosing their identities to the public. The city council in the southern port city of Busan offered 5,000 whistles to children to blow for help.

Some critics of the procedure have argued that while it may stop sex crimes, it doesn't necessarily prevent other violent crimes. Civil liberties advocates have also called the procedure barbaric, and some papers in South Korea raised ethical concerns. But many supported the move.

"It's meaningless and useless to debate whether chemical castration by nature violates basic human rights," the Hankook Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial on its website after the legislation passed, saying that it cannot compare to the suffering of victims.

David Benjamin, a Ph.D who is a clinical pharmacologist and forensic toxicologist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, said hindering physically arousal may not deter mental arousal.

"Arousal is in the brain," he said. "It transfers to a bodily function when you become aroused, but I don't know whether there has been enough scientific research to prove that hindering a bodily function can keep you from being aroused."