South Korea has an unprecedented record when it comes to the death penalty, allowing a political prisoner on death row to become its president.
Late President Kim Dae-jung, who was in office from 1998 to 2003, was sentenced to death in 1980, on treason charges.
With a campaign by the international community and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Kim was able to leave the country for the United States two years later.
The last execution in Korea took place in 1997 and while the country still has the death penalty, it has been categorized as abolitionist in practice.
Now, South Korea should take the next step to abolish its death penalty and lead the human rights movement said Chiara Sangiorgio, the advisor on the abolition of the death penalty at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, in an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday.
“South Korea has not carried out executions for more than 20 years. I think the moment is ripe for steps to be taken to abolish the death penalty here,” she said. Sangiorgio was also the lead author of the annual Amnesty report on the death penalty. The organization released the 2016-2017 report on April 12.
According to the latest report compiling data until the end of last year, South Korea has not delivered a death sentence for the past two years.
“Unfortunately, we did see one case in February, but we can see it is becoming a rare occurrence here,” she said.
“Many countries around South Korea practice executions in horrific ways, from North Korea to China and Japan. So the country stands out in the region from this point of view. It is a human rights issue which the government and the administrators here should take ownership of.”
China was once again the world’s leading executioner, with the figures expected to reach into the thousands. Japan carried out four executions in secrecy, and North Korea is also infamous for their public executions.
Regarding the communist regime, the watchdog found a report which claims that a ban on public executions has been placed.
“We see it as a significant step, which shows how the world’s stance is changing towards the death penalty.”
But she explained they face challenges with limited access to information in North Korea.
“We know there are executions. And we are concerned about the unfair trial proceedings as it seems to be the way through which the punishment is imposed, without the right to appeal,” she said. “But it would be difficult make a judgment for North Korea until we have full access to the statistics there.”
As of the end of 2017, South Korea had 61 men under the sentence of death. And while there has been legislative efforts to abolish the death sentence, the public sentiment appears to oppose doing away with the death penalty.
According to 2015 data from Korea Legislation Research Institute, 65.2 percent of the respondents opposed the abolition of the death penalty, while 34.2 percent agreed. In another poll in 2017, 79.4 percent of 1,000 respondents supported maintaining the death penalty.
Since 1999, seven revision proposal bills have been tabled at the National Assembly where they have been left pending for several years.
Sangiorgio noted it is not enough for the authorities to just say they cannot abolish the death penalty due to public opinion, as it is a question of leading the country for improving human rights.
“How polls are devised, what the respondents know, and when the polls are conducted can all affect the result,” she said. “Studies have shown that when the public is informed of what the death penalty is and what alternatives there are, their supporting opinions will change,” she explained.
“It is important to understand that abolishing the death penalty is not asking for impunity for crime, but that it is discussing about cruel punishment that needs to be repealed.”
Taking the example of Mongolia, which abolished the death penalty over a period of six years, Sangiorgio said South Korea can also initiate the process step by step.
“The government can start by formalizing the status quo of where the country is at in terms of the death penalty, and have a strong pronouncement by leadership. It should also take international commitment,” she said.
Amnesty International called for the South Korean government to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions, and urged it to vote in favor of the draft resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, which will be considered at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly at the end of this year.
“South Korea is put in a unique place and timing. And the country‘s leadership should take the opportunity to improve its human rights record and become the next country to abolish the death penalty,” Sangiorgio said.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org