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[Korean History] 23 executions in 1997, followed by a hiatus that continues to this day

Nearly 25 years after the country last carried out an execution, Constitutional Court deliberates on capital punishment for 3rd time

Aug. 30, 2023 - 16:38 By Yoon Min-sik
The Jan. 1, 1998, edition of The Korea Herald carries a story about the executions of 23 death-row inmates. (The Korea Herald)

The New Year's Day edition of The Korea Herald in 1998 depicted the somber image of a nation grappling with a financial crisis, teetering on the edge of uncertainty and reliant on a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.

While delivering the dim outlook for the year ahead, the paper also published a 74-word article at the bottom of page 3 with the headline, “23 death-row inmates executed.”

The story told of how, two days earlier on Dec. 30, 1997, the government had hanged the nearly two dozen death-row inmates in order to “show a resolute stand against crime." It was the first time they had executed anyone on death row since November 1995.

“Killers and rapists were served justice” would likely have been a typical reaction of readers at that time, if the story hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed.

The executions, however, marked the last time anyone has ever met such a death in this country.

For nearly 25 years now, South Korea has not carried out any executions, although the court occasionally adds convicts to the list of people on death row.

Throughout the years, the question of what to do with the death penalty has remained on the public agenda, with the Constitutional Court currently deliberating the constitutionality of capital punishment for the third time.

The last executions

Since South Korea was established as a modern republic in 1945, the country has executed a total of 920 people, either by hanging or firing squad, official data showed. However, another set of court data puts the number of total executions at nearly 1,300, including those tried by the military court and executed during the 1950-53 Korea War.

Those sentenced in the criminal court were subject to hanging, while death sentences handed down in the military court were carried out by a firing squad.

The practice of sentencing a criminal to death but not carrying out the execution began during the administration of former President Kim Dae-jung, which began in 1998.

A longtime dissident leader and once-death-row inmate himself under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s, Kim made the abolition of capital punishment one of his presidential campaign pledges.

As of May 2023, Amnesty International categorized Korea as a death penalty “abolitionist in practice.” With growing awareness about human rights, most countries have moved away from the most extreme form of punishment.

According to Amnesty International, only about 20 countries carried out executions in 2022, with three countries carrying out the majority of all of the executions that occurred: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As of 2023, 112 countries have completely abolished capital punishment for all crimes, while scores more -- like Korea -- have it in their laws but do not implement it.

(Park Ji-young/The Korea Herald)

Abolished in practice

Korea’s de facto abolitionist stance, however, is not without its complexities. Last month, Korea hurriedly revised the law to remove a 30-year extinctive prescription period for the death penalty. This rush was prompted by Won Eon-sik, the country’s longest-serving death-row inmate alive, who was to mark 30 years behind bars on Nov. 23, making the first case in which a death penalty sentence would reach its expiration date without being implemented.

Korea has 59 individuals on death row, all of whom have been convicted of murder. They include serial killers like Kang Ho-sun, convicted for the deaths of 10 women, and Yoo Young-chul, who was convicted for the deaths of 20 people.

A total of 209 people have lost their lives to the hands of the 59 death-row inmates.

“A sentence of capital punishment that permanently isolates the defendant from society is an inevitable choice,” stated the Seoul High Court in its 2009 ruling on Kang's case in 2009.

With no executions being carried out, the number of death sentences has declined over the years.

According to the Supreme Court's data, in much of the decade leading up to 2010, an average of three criminals were added to the roster of death-row inmates each year, but now the figure has dwindled dramatically, nearly reaching the point of nonexistence.

From 2011 up to present day, the country has seen the addition of only three -- one each in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

The problem with 'life sentences'

With the death penalty not implemented in practice and the court very rarely sentencing even those convicted of multiple murders to death, life imprisonment has become the most severe punishment in reality.

In July this year, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s verdict that sentenced the death penalty to a prisoner who killed a fellow inmate while already serving life imprisonment for robbery and murder, returning the case to the district court for review.

In April last year, the top court sentenced Kim Tae-hyun who murdered a mother and her two daughters in an apartment in Seoul in 2021 to life in prison.

One of the criticisms of the current criminal justice system is that life sentences are not really for life, as convicts typically become eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 20 years in prison.

Life imprisonment without parole has been among the most frequently discussed options to replace the death penalty in Korea. Proponents say it could serve the dual purpose of permanently separating the worst criminals from society, while preventing an irreversible miscarriage of justice in the case of the wrongly convicted.

However, the EU sees life sentences as inhumane treatment and infringing on human dignity, in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Civic groups hold a performance to urge the abolishment of the death sentence at the Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul in this Nov. 30, 2022, file photo. (Newsis)

Debate continues

In 2020, Korea cast its vote in favor of a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Despite its official stance denouncing executions, however, the matter is a subject of debate among ordinary Koreans, with public opinion polls frequently pointing to popular support for the death penalty clause.

A 2022 survey by Gallup Korea of 1,000 adults across the country showed that 69 percent of respondents said Korea should retain the punishment, with 23 percent saying it should be abolished and 9 percent undecided. The pollster held a survey on the matter six times since 1994, and not once did the option of abolishing the death penalty garner support from the majority of respondents.

“The death penalty is a strong issue in diplomatic relations. ... Carrying out executions may have implications on (Korea’s) ties with the EU,” Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said at the National Assembly, in response to an inquiry from a lawmaker on whether the government would consider resuming executions.

Civic groups hold a press conference urging the Constitutional Court to declare the death sentence unconstitutional, in this July 14 photo taken in front of the Constitutional Court in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Newsis)

The minister added that his administration has not formed a conclusion on the matter, and he is merely stating the complex nature of the issue.

The European Union is among those leading the movement in opposition to the death penalty, reiterating in its 2021 statement its “strong and unequivocal opposition to the use of capital punishment in all times and in all circumstances.”

Whenever shocking and violent crimes come to light, a recurring call for the reinstatement of executions emerges among Koreans. This sentiment is often echoed by conservative politicians as well.

But while the majority of Koreans express support for retaining the death penalty, surveys suggest that they are willing to consider its abolition if viable alternative forms of punishment are introduced to address heinous crimes.

A 2018 survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea showed 79.7 percent of the respondents did not think the death penalty should be abolished. But the same survey found that 66.9 percent of the respondents would agree to its abolition if an alternate form of punishment existed.

Mindful of such public sentiment, which has been hardened by the stabbing rampages this summer, the Justice Ministry announced on Aug. 11 its plan to introduce life sentence without parole, a move that could provide an alternative to the death penalty.


Korean History