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South Korea moving to abolish death penalty

Seoul street
Heated debate is expected after the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said it will recommend President Moon Jae-in declare a moratorium on the death penalty in December. 

A senior official at the oversight agency said last week that joint, working-level discussions with the Ministry of Justice will soon be under way to help President Moon to deliver the declaration Dec. 10, on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Day. 

A moratorium refers to any suspension of activity. Countries that pass a moratorium on judicial executions publicly make it clear that they will not put a person to death in a government-sanctioned punishment. 

The move, the official said, is part of efforts to facilitate the agency's initiative to enhance human rights, in line with policy goals presented during a President-chaired debriefing last December. 

The President at the time asked the agency recommend opinions in line with international standards and criteria on human rights issues including the death penalty and the abolishment of the law that punishes conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the military on religious grounds.

The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which incorporated values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly, made it clear that "nothing ... should be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the ... Covenant." 

Korea is among 160 other countries that have already either eliminated capital punishment or do not practice it. 

61 convicted criminals are serving prison term after being sentenced to death, but no execution has been carried out here over the past 2 decades since December 1997. 

The international community including Amnesty International considers a country where no execution was carried out over 10 years a virtually death penalty-free region. 

Publication by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a UN body, places particular focus on the political leadership required to move away from capital punishment. Cheong Wa Dae said declaring the moratorium will be reviewed upon submission of the NHRC-drafted recommendation.

Supporters' claim

Supporters of the abolishment claim the death penalty undermines human dignity, denies opportunity to reverse wrongful, erroneous convictions and is not a useful deterrent to crimes evidenced by a lack of statistical evidence. 

The OHCHR, whose mandate seeks to promote and protect all human rights, advocates for the universal abolition of the death penalty, urging the international community to acknowledge the failure of capital punishment as a means to exact justice. 

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the taking of life is "too irreversible for one human being to inflict it on another." He urged that people continue to argue strongly against the death penalty because it is unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights.

Execution of 8 people convicted on charges of National Security Law violation in 1975 is the most well-known case that illustrates "unacceptable risk of executing innocent people" in Korea. 

The eight in what is widely known as the "Inhyukdang incident," were arrested for alleged involvement in what then-military, authoritarian regime under Park Chung-hee deemed as organized efforts to overthrow his government with the help of North Korea, a crime punishable under the National Security Law. 

They were executed only 18 hours after the sentencing in an unusually swift elimination of politically dissident voices, as the newly established regime under Park sought to initiate and perpetuate the fear-inducing rule only about a year after taking power via military coup in 1974. The Seoul Central District Court posthumously acquitted them in a retrial 2007.

Pushback inevitable

However, such a politically motivated execution in the past is highly unlikely to recur in Korea, a country ruled by democracy with elected leaders subject to accountability in regularly held elections. 

Currently, public sentiment is not entirely for the abolition, primarily due to a sense of seeking revenge and retribution against committers of violent crimes such as sex offenders and serial killers. 

The public largely remains against spending taxpayers' money to keep "savages" alive. According to a survey conducted by Real Meter of 511 people, more than 1/2, or 52.8 % said they were in favor of the death penalty. Less than 1/3, or 32.6 %, said they were against the execution. 

According to a separate survey by a local daily newspaper of 1,000 people, nearly 2/3, or 66 % said they were against the death penalty abolition. Of those aged between 19 and 29, over 70 % said they were against the abolishment.

Many people demanded death penalty be imposed on Cho Doo-soon, who was convicted of raping an 8-year-old school girl, which left her with permanent damage to multiple organs. Despite the severity of the crime, he was only sentenced to a 12-year prison term in 2008, after a judge recognized his claim that he was intoxicated at the time of the incident and therefore unable to make rational decisions. His scheduled released in 2020 is a main concern for parents with young girls and the public at large.

Public outrage was just as fierce against Yoo Young-chul, a serial killer who infamously said he "would have killed up to a hundred people" had he not been apprehended. 

The then 34-year-old was sentenced to death in June 2005 and has since been serving prison term for killing 20 people mostly women and elderly in Seoul between 2003 and 2004. 

The man tried to justify his actions by switching blame onto the rich and women, saying "I hope this incident would serve as a cautionary tale that rich people should get their act together and that women should not be promiscuous." Many of his victims were prostitutes whom he called to his home. Kim told police that he ate the organs of his victims.

The most recent case involves a man Lee Young-hak who was sentenced to death in January for killing and discarding the body of a girl, a friend of her daughter. Lee asked his 11-year-old daughter to invite the victim for a sleepover. He then drugged, sexually harassed and killed her. The daughter was sentenced to prison term for helping the father discard of the body.

Balance required

The ministry plans to hold public hearings in September, conduct 6-month study on possible alternative punishment to replace capital punishment. 

Further in-depth review followed by public consensus will precede revision to the status quo. 

"Abolishing the death penalty should be determined with great caution after fully reviewing both the positive and negative impact it would have on the criminal justice system," the ministry said. 

This would require a review of its earlier rejection to follow UN recommendation on the abolishment of death penalty early this year. It was 1 of the 2 UN recommendations the ministry rejected alongside the abolishment of National Security Law, which the ministry claimed should remain for the country to achieve peaceful reunification as well as to improve human rights of North Korean people. 

Other than the 2, the ministry said it would follow 85 other recommendations, adding the remaining 130 are under review with plans to establish an institutional framework for their implementation.

Source:  Korea Times, Lee Kyung-min, June 24, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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