Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Death penalty could soon be « reactivated » in South Korea

These days, South Korea is living crucial times that could very well determine the future of capital punishment and how its prisoners are treated for years to come.

These last weeks, the whole country has been gripped by a popular furore against a child rapist-killer. A crime whose victim is a young teenager and which naturally enflames pulic opinion.

Similar to high profile pedophilia cases that became commonplace these last years, with Dutroux some years ago, or more recently scandals involving the Catholic Church in the US or Ireland, or the recent come back in the British medias of John Venables, one of two murdererd of the young Bugler, who is reported to have been found in possession of child pornography (originally a case dating back to 1993 in which two 10 year-old kids had killes a two year-old toddler after having tortured him), South Koreans are presently filled with rage. A rage that could well lead them to put an end to a moratorium on the death penalty that was in place since a previous President Kim Dae-jung came to power in 1998, a man who received the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in trying to reconcile the South with the North and for his historical meeting with Kim Jong-il in 2000. Kim Dae-jung who, as a member of the opposition, had himself been sentenced to the death penalty in 1980 for treason by the authoritarian regime at the time, to be freed in 1982 then have his rights fully rehabilitated in 1987, to finally become President in 1987 (swearing in in 1998).

His usccessor in 2002, Roh Mu-hyun, being himself a Humqn rights lawyer before entering politics, this tacit moratorium on the death penalty began with Kim Dae-jung was prolonged somwhow almost automatically for the duration of his presidency.

With the conservative Lee Myung-bak coming to power in 2007, former president of the construction branch of the Hyunday conglomerate, former Seoul mayor and known populist,all this could change. Even more so after the close deaths of the two previous presidents Kim and Roh, the former due to health problems and the latter after presumably commiting suicide attributed by many to the « harrassing » of the Lee administration for corruption scandals in which members of his family and close aides were allegedly involved (things being what they are in South Korea, prosecutors put an end to the prosecution after he died ; this could seem strange if we consider that justice is supposed to be independant from political power – a sign that some perceive as the proof that the prosecution was indeed politically motivated from the start, otherwise it would have gone on even after his death, because they mainly involved other people rather than himself).

But I’m straying from my subject, even if it is essential to remind the reader who South Korea owes its de facto moratorium on the death penalty to be able to better understand the current complex situation in the country.

So, about a month ago, a 13 year-old middle school student from Pusan, the second biggest city in South Korea and an important harbour in the south of the peninsula, went missing. Two weeks later, her dead body stripped of clothes was discovered in an abandoned water tank. The autopsy revealed she had been raped.

Immediately, police moved to find the murderer, and very soon the name of a suspect, or shall we say THE suspect, a young man already sentenced in the past to jail for rape, is given to the media, without being immediately caught.

The South Korean President, who is everywhere, does everything, takes care of everything and wants to make himself indispensable to the running of the country in its smallest details, speaks in the media to order the police to catch the suspect as soon as possible.

From this moment, it is possible to doubt the sincerity of his intervention, because it is obvious that he could also have contacted the head of the Pusan police in private (which he probably did by the way) without using the medias and that they would have worked at least as well, or even better, without less pressure from the media.

In such a dramatic case, in which a family is davastated by such a horrible truth, the role of a President is not to come forward by using the media and take care of his image, pretending to be close to the people’s preoccupations, but to adopt a more low-profile attitude rather than announce various things to the press at all times to show he’s taking care of the case personally.

Other Heads of States, Korean or not, would probably not have used this kind of situation to advance some parts of their programme or their ideology, some would have shown more restraint.

It is even possible to say that, when seeing how wild Lee Myung-bak’s administration is, it is just as if this crime were a golden opportunity for the party of the President, which makes new suggestions to reform or introduce laws related to the subject almost every day that passes.

First of all, the government proposed to introduce a measure that, albeit not spectacular by its looks, is nonetheless critical because of its implications. Indeed, one of these would simply consist in introduce a retroactive measure for the persons judged guilty of sexual crime on minors.

In practice, pedophiles sentenced for crimes committed after September 2008 have to wear an electronic bracelet 24h/7, but with the revision of the law that is planned, people sentenced efore this date (when this law has been introduced) will also have to wear it.

Even if, at first sight, it would be possible to think that this is not so important, by having a closer look it actually consists in introducing a principle of retroactivity, a practice that is banned from every true democracy, for nobody knows where such a reform could lead.

Today it’s about the electronic bracelet, and tomorrow ? Will someone currently sentenced to one year in jail, have his sentence changed to a 3 years, 5 years, 10 years sentence according to the circumstances at the time of the sentencing, the fluctuations of public opinion and whatever wants the government ? What will be the criteria used to judge whether it is adequate to introduce this or that retroactive measure ? Who will be judged the right person to pass law ? What will be the areas concerned ? What will be the time limit on the principle of retroactivity ?

So many questions, and of course there are no responses, because it goes without saying that the very principle of a law that creates a retroactive effect does not belong to a democratic system, but to a dictatorship, or at least a dictatorial regime.

Talking about which, President Lee does not hide his admiration for the defunct dictator Park Chung-hee, hate and venerated at the same time (assassinated in 1979), and in several occasions he shows this, for example, by putting on a military outfit (something that was not done by his predecessors) or when he decides to organise weekly crisis meetings in the bunker located below the presidential house, so that he can make the public understand how serious is the state of the economy and that he’s got things under control, like a commander in chief leading his troops to battle (that is, if people keep quiet at the back).

His government has well understood all the benefit he could draw from the murder and rape of the young middle school girl, so they launch public opinion surveys on the death penalty, in a context where the people of Korea are stimulated by the media on the issue, surveys that result in (one is tempted to add « of course ») 80 % of the public for the capital sentence ; they put forward propositions to give heavier sentences to pedophiles ; they suggest these « be kept at bay from society » once released (nobody says « how » yet) ; and, last but not least, they propose to execute the 59 inmates currently on death row since they received theor sentence.

The Constitutional Court of South Korea has recently made her judgment public, last February, on the constitutionality of the death penalty, judging that it wasn’t contrary to the Constitution of the country and that prisoners currently waiting to know what would be made of their sentence could therefore be executed.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, one of the main slogans of Lee Myung-bak, broadcast again and again, was putting forward « the 10 forgotten years » of the two previous presidencies, a period during which many progresses were made toward a greater democratization of the country to make people understand that power was in their hands. No doubt that the exponential growth of the Internet in this perios (1998-2008) largely contributed to a wide diffusion of democratic concepts in the Korean population and particularly among the young generations, thanks to a larger and easier access to information, without having to rely on conservative newspapers that dominate the written press in Korea.

By reintroducing measures to monitor the identity of people online and by taking a harder stance, closer to its core values (nostalgy for the authoritarian regimes dating back from pre 90s years), it seems indeed that Lee Myung-bak’s political party aims to get rid of, at least in part, the heritage of the 10 years that preceded his coming to power. But limit freedoms, give heavier sentences, harden repression and restart the application of the death penalty are not signs that the President, ot his party, have any kind of vision for the future of Korean society.

The « bulldozer », a nickname he received while he was the head of the construction branch of Hyundai, might think a country can be managed like a company, he’s better understand that a Nation, a society is much more than just economic indicators. Current social problems that Korea has to face are a reminder that social issues of a country cannot be dealt with the same way as those of a company.

It is a pity Lee Myung-bak does not understand that using people’s misery for political purposes, in that case the murder of a child, is not ethical (even if that’s what most politicians do most of the time) and that restarting executions of inmates on death row will not lessen, or put an end to, murders or rapes of young children, or adults. It will only result in creating the conditions for a more repressice society towards its population as a whole.

Mourning families do not need some kind of hypocritical help, they probably only want to be left alone. The execution of death row prisoners, if it happens, and the possible introduction of measures that do not belong to a democracy will not bring back their little girl, and will not garanty a rosy future to Korean society either.


Ciska said...

Ahhh, you stumbled upon one of my hobby horses! (Even though the word hobby horse sounds very strange in the context of the death penalty).
Personally I think Lee Myung Bak is a lot of blabla about the reactivation of the death penalty. I think it will not happen as for sure he does not want to harm amongst others the economic relations with Europe. Also, Korea is very eager to sign a treaty with Europe about the hand over of prisoners. (Remember the movie, Itaewon murders?) However one of the conditions (from the European side) is that Europe does not hand over its citizens to a country where the death penalty is still installed.
So yep, Lee Myung Bak is back to his ever populist self... I find this so very sad. He is just abusing this terrible case to raise his popularity (once again). Sad sad...

Anonymous said...

great post as usual!