The court said the 10-year-old victim's testimony was insufficient to prove there was "enough threat and physical assault" that made the victim unable to defend herself ― which would constitute a rape charge.
In the June 13 ruling, the Seoul High Court handed down a three-year jail term to the offender, a cram school teacher surnamed Lee, 35. The sentence was reduced drastically from an earlier term of eight years given by a local court.
Lee met the victim through a chatting app in April last year. He brought her to his home and had her drink two glasses of soju to get her drunk. He then sexually assaulted her by holding her hands and pressing against her body so she could not move.
Lee denied the allegations, claiming he did not know that the girl, who was 160 centimeters tall, was 10 years old at the time, and that he had sex with her with her consent.
Although the local court acknowledged Lee used threats and physical assaults to the point where she was unable to defend herself, the high court did not ― it said the girl's statement was the only evidence regarding the threat and assault and that it was insufficient.
The ruling caused a public uproar, and a petition was posted on Cheong Wa Dae's website requesting the dismissal of the judge on the case, gaining more than 100,000 signatures.
"How can the judge acknowledge sex with a 10-year-old child as consensual intercourse? Even when the man made her drink alcohol to rape her? I can't believe the judge said the victim's statement is not reliable because she is a child," the petitioner wrote.
Lenient punishment of sexual predators targeting children enables them to repeat their crimes. "Reducing the sentence for the offender is like assaulting her twice," the petitioner said. "I believe such rotten judges make this country even worse."
As the criticism intensified, the court released an unusual explanation over the ruling on Monday.
According to the explanation, the victim just nodded when the investigator asked if Lee just held her hands and body down, so they could not confirm the details of the situation, such as if there was enough threat and violence to prevent her from fighting back.
With such limited evidence, the court could not recognize Lee as guilty of rape, so it ruled him guilty of statutory rape ― sex with a minor is illegal regardless of circumstances.
The high court's account has just added fuel to the criticism.
The Korean Women Lawyers Association issued a statement on Monday, saying, "Three years in prison doesn't meet the people's common sense."
Internet users were also critical. "The man raped a 10-year-old girl by having her drink two glasses of soju, and the judge sided with the offender. Unbelievable," an internet user said.
"Does it make sense to have a sex with a 10-year-old under consent? And only three years? Even 30 years is not enough. If it happened in the U.S., the man would have a life sentence," another wrote.
Absolutely disgusting. He should suffer for longer than his victim, who will probably have a lifetime of trauma.