SEOUL >> He has long been regarded as one of the best stage actors in South Korea, appearing in more than 200 productions since 1968 and winning a number of awards. In 2021, he rocketed to international fame after portraying Oh Il-nam, the wily, older contestant in the Netflix smash hit “Squid Game.”
On Friday, he will go on trial on charges of indecent assault. If convicted, he would be the latest example of how South Korea has tried to crack down on sex crimes as the country continues to grapple with the reverberations of the #MeToo movement.
Prosecutors charged Oh Young-soo, 78, in November, after a woman filed a complaint accusing him of inappropriately touching her in 2017. If a district judge in Suwon, about 20 miles south of Seoul, convicts Oh, he would face up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to about $12,000.
Few additional facts are known about the case and the incident. Court documents are unavailable by law, and authorities have declined to offer more details about the accuser, citing their policy not to disclose any information about victims of sex crimes.
Oh has denied any wrongdoing, but he has already faced fallout since being charged. He has been excluded from the cast of a South Korean play called “Love Letter,” in which he had been scheduled to perform Jan. 14. The country’s Culture Ministry has also stopped airing a government commercial that had featured him.
“I rushed to request replacements as soon as I heard the news,” said Lim Dong-sik, head of advertising at the broadcasting network sponsoring the play in which Oh had been cast. Lim added that the allegations had tarnished Oh’s reputation.
Last year, Oh became the first South Korean to win a Golden Globe, for best supporting actor. He also was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in “Squid Game,” a dystopian drama that chronicles South Koreans down on their luck who join a secretive, deadly contest in hopes of winning a life-changing fortune.
The show struck a pop-culture nerve worldwide — becoming Netflix’s most-watched new series ever — and featured Oh portraying Oh Il-nam, an older competitor known as “Player 001” in the game. Netflix did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Prosecutors in Suwon pressed charges Nov. 25 after initially dropping the case. A police station in Seongnam, a nearby city, had originally received the complaint from the woman in December 2021 and had immediately begun investigating the case, said Jang Shin-mo, a division leader at the station. That station sent the case to the prosecutors in February, but authorities decided two months later not to press charges, Jang said.
The woman appealed and asked police to reopen the case in May, Jang said. After gathering more evidence, prosecutors pressed charges in November.
People convicted of indecent assault in South Korea become registered sex offenders who are monitored by police even after completing their prison terms. First-time offenders can receive reduced sentences, such as five years, or simply a fine.
In the wake of the charges, Oh had become a particularly poor fit to appear in the play “Love Letter,” said Lim. The play is a romance featuring a pair of actors who take turns reading love letters to each other. Each character is married to someone else, but they exchange intimate letters throughout the span of their lives.
Lim said his company had decided to drop Oh from the play the day the charges were announced. Oh and the other actor who had been scheduled to appear as a pair were replaced by two other performers.
After the Culture Ministry canceled the government advertisements featuring Oh, it said in a statement that it had done so to avoid “unnecessary controversy.” The emailed statement did not explicitly mention the accusations against Oh. The ads, which had promoted regulatory reform, disappeared from government websites, official social media channels and subway stations only 11 days after they went up.
Throughout his career, Oh has played supporting roles in film and television, including a part as an aging Buddhist monk in the 2003 romance film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.” That portrayal earned him the moniker “monk actor,” a role he would reprise in other films, television shows and commercials.
Over the past five years, a nascent #MeToo movement in South Korea has led to accusations of sexual abuse against an array of prominent men, many of whom were powerful figures in the entertainment industry. Several have apologized or resigned; a few were convicted of rape and other sex crimes and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
In South Korea, the legal threshold required to earn a conviction for a sex crime is high. Prosecutors must prove that force or the threat of force was present when the sexual act was committed. But in recent years, some have called for a softening of the law; women’s rights groups have argued that prosecutors should be able to earn sex-crime convictions simply by proving that a victim did not provide consent.
Securing evidence in indecent assault cases can also pose challenges, said Chang Dahye, a research fellow at the Korean Institute of Criminology and Justice. But courts have generally ruled in favor of the prosecution in indecent assault cases in South Korea. Prosecutors here have the sole authority to decide whether to charge a suspect, and they are unlikely to do so unless they believe they have enough evidence to win, Chang added.
The conviction rate of prosecuted sex crime cases, she said, is more than 80%.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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