FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7
Death, Be Not Proud
Opposition to capital punishment grows
By JOHN LARKIN Seoul
Hope is rarely seen on death row. Kim Jin Tae, 29, has spent eight years there agonizing over when he will receive the customary 24-hour notice before being hauled off to the gallows for murdering his abusive father. (Kim claims it was an act of self defense.) But recently Kim received a stunning bit of news. A group of 92 South Korean legislators had presented a bill in the National Assembly, proposing that capital punishment be replaced with life terms in prison. "That really cheered me up and I'm smiling a lot more nowadays," wrote the prisoner in a Dec. 5 letter to Lee Sang Hyuk, a veteran Seoul-based lawyer who is at the forefront of a widening campaign to abolish the death penalty. "I can't even begin to express how grateful I am."
Historically, South Korea is a conservative society, with a penchant for frontier-type justice. Capital punishment was routine under the autocratic regimes of president Park Chung Hee and his successor Chun Doo Hwan. Until 1987, when the first democratic presidential election in three decades was held, dissenters risked being labeled radicals, a euphemism for communist. "Discussion of this matter used to be taboo," recalls Yoo Jay Kun, a key lawmaker responsible for introducing the bill. "In those times everyone was afraid of being branded a radical." Since Independence in 1948, 902 people have been executed in South Korea, most of them by hanging. Dozens of offenses carry the death penalty, ranging from murder to the theft of "national treasures." Tellingly, more than half of those executed up to 1987 had violated the National Security Law, a set of stringent strictures prohibiting even the vaguest expression of sympathy for communist North Korea.
Times have changed. Just last week President Kim Dae Jung was quoted telling a Japanese reporter:"I judge [North Korea's Kim Jong Il] as a leader [with] considerable judgment and knowledge." Since relations with the North began improving a few years ago, the overall climate is more relaxed and, along with that, public attitudes toward capital punishment. Not a few people in legal and political circles believe the death penalty is out of step with the times, especially in a country with a democracy as robust as South Korea's. Sitting in his cramped offices in southern Seoul, lawyer Lee, who heads the Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, says a growing number of South Koreans concur with the popular Western view that executing murderers does little or nothing to deter potential killers. According to a Gallup survey in December, 43% of South Koreans oppose the death penalty (50% were in favor), up from just 20% in 1994. That change is in keeping with a remarkable worldwide trend against state executions over the past decade: in 1989, capital punishment stood abolished in 79 countries; today the number has gone up to 106.
Abolitionists are encouraged that no death-row inmate has been executed since Kim Dae Jung came to power in February 1998. This may have something to do with the fact that Kim himself languished on death row in 1980, charged with inciting the Kwangju uprising that year, which led to the killings of hundreds of pro-democracy activists by government troops. (His sentence was commuted.) Last year, on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule, Kim pardoned five death-row prisoners. That still leaves an estimated 50 others without reprieve. The Justice Department refused to provide figures to Asiaweek about the number of people awaiting capital punishment.
Lee believes the president supports the abolition campaign but is fearful of voicing his opinion on the matter publicly. "Talking about the death penalty can still be a minus for one's political career," explains the lawyer. The dilemma may mirror a cultural dichotomy: Koreans are generally seen as favoring stiff authority, while also tending to tolerate rebellion against it. For all the flurry of recent activity, surveys clearly indicate, most South Koreans believe that capital punishment has its uses. As Seoul lawyer Shim Kyu Chul puts it: "The purpose of the death penalty is to serve social justice."
With elections around the corner, the debate over capital punishment looks set to pick up. One question that could be raised is whether death row victims should pay the ultimate price for their crimes - or if Koreans should heed the advice of citizens such as Seo Yoon Bum, 68. Her five-year-old grandson was killed when a car plowed through a group of pedestrians in Seoul in 1991. The distraught, devoutly Catholic grandmother forgave the errant driver, Kim Yong Jae, 24. But that didn't prevent Kim from being hanged in 1997. The execution prompted Seo to launch a personal protest that she still keeps up. "I don't go to mass any more," she says sadly. "I won't attend until my soul is at peace." Or, perhaps, until the death penalty is abolished.
Where Others Stand on Executions
CHINA By far the world's most prolific executioner, according to 1998 figures. Capital offenses in the People's Republic range from tax evasion to murder.
TAIWAN One of the top 10 executioners in 1998, with more deaths per capita than in the U.S.
THAILAND Executions resumed in 1996, with 17 prisoners shot dead last year. In an apparent bid to appease human-rights groups, Bangkok is considering switching to lethal injection.
MALAYSIA Capital offenses include trafficking of dangerous drugs, murder and firearm offenses.
SINGAPORE Mandatory death sentences for murder, treason, firearm offenses and drug trafficking.
JAPAN Low-key use of the penalty, despite high public support for the practice. Executions are carried out with little fanfare, usually when the Diet is in recess, to avoid parliamentary debate.
HONG KONG Nobody has been put to death in the former British colony since 1966, although it wasn't until 1993 that capital punishment was formally abolished. Fears of a post-handover reversion to the death penalty have so far been unfounded.
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