Sunday, 28 February 2010

South Korea: Up to parliament to abolish death penalty

Capital Punishment
Editorial: Legislature Should Do What Judicature Failed to Do
From: The Korea Times, 26 February 2010

The Constitutional Court's ruling to uphold the death penalty Thursday shows Koreans' consciousness advances frustratingly slower than their economic development.

In a 5-4 decision, the top court said in effect that although capital punishment should be abolished someday, it is still too early to do so now. It was the same logic the nation's highest tribunal used 13 years ago when it also ruled the state's taking of citizens' lives constitutional.

Equally anachronistic are the reasons the court cited for retaining the ultimate penalty. The majority of judges wrote that capital punishment is the "rightful reward" for and "effective prevention" of heinous crimes. But penal studies both here and abroad have long found the death penalty neither deters crime nor provides a sense of closure for victims' families.

Even more importantly, there remains an unforgivable ― and irrevocable ― risk of executing an innocent person, which explains why the right to life must not be limited in any way and under any excuses, despite what the judges said. This is especially true in Korea, where there are as many as 110 offenses punishable by death with only 12 of them being atrocious crimes, and most others, political, economic and ideological ones.

All this testifies to why 139 countries have either completely or partially done away with capital punishment. Korea for its part has stopped executions since the inauguration of former President Kim Dae-jung, himself a one-time death-row convict, in 1998.

Considering the world's three biggest economies ― the United States, Japan and China ― are among the 58 countries that retain the death penalty, this seems to have more to do with national dignity than economy. The EU has made its abolition as a precondition for membership.

However Koreans may think their country is advanced and prestigious, it would appear as little more than another brutal state to people in the old continent, the birthplace of democracy and modern civilization.

It is hard to deny the top tribunal's ruling reflects the popular sentiment here, which reportedly favors the death penalty at a ratio of 6 to 4. Not many countries, however, have done away with death penalty following public opinion. When France abolished capital punishment in 1981, for example, 60 percent of its people supported it. A decade later, the same percentage approved its abolition.

Probably in light of all these circumstances, the court referred this issue to the court of the legislature. The National Assembly has toyed with its abolition throughout the past decade but taken no concrete action. It is time for the Assembly, especially the governing Grand National Party, to take the lead in the repealing of laws on capital punishment, if for no other reason than lifting the "national prestige," as the Lee Myung-bak administration has been addressing so emphatically.

Koreans should also realize this is not a matter between death-row convicts and the rest of the citizens but an issue between the state power and all citizens. It was only some decades ago that dictatorial regimes committed "judicial murders" of political dissidents and other innocent people under false charges of state subversion.

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