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[KH Explains] Assault on lawmaker reignites debate on teens' legal immunity

15-year-old assailant repeatedly claims that he is a “criminal minor” who is immune from punishment

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Jan. 26, 2024 - 17:52

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A Korean lawmaker fell victim to a brutal physical assault by a 15-year-old teenage assailant, who not only carried out the attack but repeatedly -- and incorrectly -- claimed immunity from legal consequences.

The incident on Thursday has re-ignited concerns about the issue of juvenile crime and the legal immunity afforded to some teenagers. The law prohibits the punishment of individuals under the age of 14.

People Power Party Rep. Bae Hyun-jin was beaten 15 times on the head in a 10-second attack. The 15-year-old assailant was detained Thursday afternoon in Seoul's southern district of Gangnam shortly after attacking Bae for unclear reasons.

During the investigation, the teen told the police that he is a “criminal minor” who is immune from punishment for crimes. He reportedly made the same assertion when being arrested by the police at the scene.

The suspect's remarks have reignited concerns that the Juvenile Act is being exploited as a means to exempt young offenders from criminal punishment amid nationwide concern about the rising juvenile crimes.

For instance, in the underground parking lot of an apartment complex in Incheon's Namdong-gu in December and January, middle school students sprayed 41 vehicles with fire extinguisher powder, causing damage. The teenagers later told police their actions were intended as a prank for their amusement.

In January, an elementary school student and a middle school student drove a car approximately 13 kilometers. They live-streamed their joy ride on social media, during which they accelerated to nearly 100 kilometers per hour.

However, according to the Juvenile Act and the Criminal Act, minors aged 14 and younger, referred to as "criminal minors," cannot be convicted of a crime in South Korea.

If such children commit offenses, they are referred to community service programs or youth correction institutions. Teens aged 14 to 18 can face criminal punishment, but with more lenient standards than adults.

Security camera footage released by Rep. Bae Hyun-jin's office shows a teenage assailant approaching Bae in Sinsa-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap) Security camera footage released by Rep. Bae Hyun-jin's office shows a teenage assailant approaching Bae in Sinsa-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)

According to local reports, the reason why the suspect stressed his age is that he seeks to avoid criminal punishment. The police said Friday they will charge him with aggravated bodily injury.

However, concerns remain that the suspect would still escape punishment due to his age. Although teens aged 14 to 18 can be punished, there have been few cases in which they received criminal penalties.

Only about 3 percent of the 18,084 juvenile cases sent to trial for the five major violent crimes -- murder, robbery, rape, sexual assault, and special violence -- between 2017 to 2022 resulted in punishment under the Criminal Act, according to Supreme Court data obtained by Rep. Kang Min-kuk from the ruling People Power Party.

The majority of cases that were sent to trial saw mild correctional measures being administered.

"There are growing concerns that young offenders are exploiting the Juvenile Act as a way to avoid criminal punishment," Kang said. "This approach may overlook the pain experienced by victims and goes against the public's desire for fairness."

Critics argue that the absence of punitive action against minors contributes to their higher rate of reoffending.

According to the Ministry of Justice, 12 percent of underage offenders became repeat offenders in 2021, compared to 4.5 percent for adults.

Furthermore, 2022 data showed that criminal minors have been committing an increasing number of crimes. Rep. Kim Hoi-jae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea revealed that 35,390 people under the age of 14 have been accused of violent crimes from 2017-2021.

This included 10,199 cases of battery, 1,913 sex crimes, 47 cases of robbery and nine cases of murder. The number for 2021 was 8,374, marking a 34.8 percent increase from 2017.

In response, the Justice Ministry notified the public in October 2022 of a move to lower the minimum age for criminal sentencing. Approximately 10 related bills that would lower the age to 13 or 12 have been proposed to the National Assembly, but none have been passed.

The National Human Rights Committee of Korea and the National Court Administration expressed objections to those bills, saying they cannot be a fundamental solution to the increasing number of serious crimes committed by juveniles.

Both of those institutions said that it is difficult to recognize that 13-year-old children have attained enough maturity to be held responsible for their actions and be tried under the same criminal justice system that applies to adults, even though as teens they would face a more lenient standard.

It also noted the importance of establishing justice procedures that are focused on the rehabilitation of the children rather than on punishment and to promote their reintegration into society.

Instead, they advised rooting out fundamental causes of juvenile crimes, such as improving the home environments of troubled children and treating children with mental disorders.