South Korea’s equality minister 'should prepare for legal action' after accusing folk tale hero of raping fairy

Julian Ryall
Chung Hyun-back was applauded by feminists but ridiculed by a former judge - AFP

South Korea’s minister of gender equality is under fire after describing the hero of a much-loved traditional folktale as a kidnapper and a rapist who took advantage of a fairy. 

Speaking at a recent seminar, Chung Hyun-back took issue with the elderly woodcutter in the popular Korean fable “The Woodcutter and the Fairy” for stealing a nymph’s dress while she bathed in a pond.

The woodcutter took her clothes so she could not go back to heaven. He then married her and had two children. He then gave the fairy some clothing and she flew back to the skies to be with her parents. 

The innocent tale is one of the most famous fables in South Korea and one that all children will hear at school or bedtime.

“When I was in elementary school, I took great pity on the woodcutter - but seen from the point of view of the fairy, the two children she had with him and the fairy’s parents, he could be considered a kidnapper and a rapist”, she said. 

“This should be changed in the context of achieving gender equality”, Ms Chung said. 

The minister’s accusations were applauded by feminists, The Korea Times reported, but ridiculed by a former judge. Hwang Ju-myung, now chairman of the Seoul-based legal firm HMP Law, told the newspaper that according to Ms Chung’s logic, she should prepare for a legal challenge from the woodcutter.

“Besides, it is silly to accuse a character from an ancient story of such a heinous crime”, he said. “As far as the law is concerned, it is hard to find any indication in the story that the woodcutter resorted to coercion to have sex with the fairy or to force her to live with him”. 

Mr Hwang conceded that stealing the fairy’s clothes would be a breach of the law, but added: “Theft is a crime that is can be investigated and punished, but in the story it is not detected by any law enforcement officials and no investigation is conducted.”

He added that it is “frivolous” to turn a folk tale on its head in order to make the plot or the actions of fictitious characters contravene modern day morals or law.

“In this case, the minister should brace for a libel suit from the woodcutter”, he said.

South Korea has experienced a wave of feminism and the #MeToo movement in the last six months. The campaign took off in January, when Seo Ji-hyeon, a prosecutor, accused a senior official from the Ministry of Justice of groping her at a funeral when he was drunk. It has since swept up numerous public figures, including politicians, actors and Ko Un, a poet who has been tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature.