Crimes rekindle debate over capital punishment

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Sept 4, 2012 - 20:47
  • Updated : Sept 6, 2012 - 11:59
Saenuri nominee Park supports maintaining death penalty

A recent spate of heinous crimes against children and women has ignited calls for the execution of the offenders, which Korea has shied away from for the past 15 years.

The brutal incidents, including the rape last week of a 7-year-old girl, have shocked the entire country and forced the government to strengthen related measures, including a wider use of chemical castration and a stepped-up clampdown on child pornography.

The Justice Ministry is considering extending the application of chemical castration to sex offenders who commit crimes against those under the age of 19. The current law is applicable in cases where the victims are under age 16.

But calls are growing that such measures are not enough. Proponents of the death penalty argue that murderers gave up their human rights when they trampled on those of the victims, stressing that taxpayer money should not be wasted on supporting their lives.

A recent survey conducted by pollster Hankook Research on 3,000 adults found that 64 percent of those questioned supported capital punishment while 18.5 percent were against it.

Opponents, however, challenge the effectiveness of the death penalty and stress equally crucial human rights for murderers, arguing that no state entity can determine whether a human being should cease to live.

Since December 1997 when the former Kim Young-sam government executed 23 convicts, Korea has not carried out any executions, for which Amnesty International classified Korea as "abolitionist in practice.”

The number of death row inmates in Korea stands at around 60. They have been convicted of killing more than 200 people combined. It is estimated that around 1.3 billion won ($1.15 million) is spent each year on keeping them in prison.

The ruling Saenuri Party’s presidential candidate Park Geun-hye voiced the need to maintain the death penalty as it can serve as a strong warning against would-be criminals.

“Capital punishment should be maintained because it tells criminals that they too can die if they harm others,” said Rep. Park in a meeting with reporters.

Since it ruled capital punishment constitutional in 1963, the Supreme Court has remained consistent on its position in a series of lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. It has underscored its necessity to protect the lives of the majority of people in society.

Among those questioning capital punishment, first stipulated in the country’s penal code in 1953, were death row inmates. A 74-year-old fisherman lodged a suit in 2008 after being convicted of killing a couple and two women aboard his ship on two separate occasions while attempting to sexually assault the three women.

Whenever a horrendous murder case occurs, the debate over the execution resurfaces.

“Do the murderers have any right even to talk about their human rights? Think about the trauma the victims’ families would suffer from, perhaps for good,” said Joo Sung-joon, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“It is obviously helpful to prevent the recurrence of any brutal crimes. Crimes are repeated as our society is in general too lenient toward such murderers.”

Lee Sang-gap, a lawyer in Gwangju, opposes capital punishment.

“I also share the need to isolate those who committed atrocious crimes from our society permanently. But I don’t think we should definitely execute them for that purpose,” he said. “We can achieve their permanent isolation through life imprisonment without any reduction in their sentences or any parole.”

Lee stressed that what society should pay more attention to is how to continuously help the victims and their families overcome or manage their physical and mental problems in the long term.

“There are many families that ended up falling apart due to the crimes. The repercussions may last for a long time. We should put our heads together to provide more warm attention and care to them.”

A senior Cheong Wa Dae official remained cautious about the calls, stressing that it is a matter that requires a “broader social consensus.”

“We are not at a stage where we will consider reviving capital punishment. But we are carefully watching how people in our society think about this,” said the official, declining to be named.

“The implementation of the death penalty is not a matter the government unilaterally pushes for. This is something that calls for social agreement as to whether the punishment is effective in deterring the crimes.”

By Song Sang-ho (