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Horrific crimes reignite debate over death penalty

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Banners are hung in Daejeon, Wednesday, to urge a court to hand down a death penalty for a man who killed his 20-month-old stepdaughter in June. Yonhap
Banners are hung in Daejeon, Wednesday, to urge a court to hand down a death penalty for a man who killed his 20-month-old stepdaughter in June. Yonhap

Korea has not executed criminals since 1997

By Kang Seung-woo

A series of atrocious crimes of late are once again sparking debate over capital punishment.

South Korea is classified as "abolitionist in practice," which means that the government retains the death penalty but has not actually executed a criminal in the past 10 years or longer. The last execution here took place Dec. 31, 1997, when 23 convicted of murder were hanged.

However, the issue has been brought to the fore again following the homicide of a 20-month-old toddler by her stepfather in June and the murder of two women last month by a sex offender who removed his electronic monitoring anklet while on parole.

The 29-year-old stepfather, identified as Yang, allegedly covered the baby girl with blankets because she would not stop crying and punched and stomped her to death. Furthermore, the parents hid the baby's body in an ice box in their bathroom.

The crime has drawn public rage especially because Yang allegedly raped and sexually assaulted the toddler, according to autopsy results and the mother's testimony.

In the other case, a man surnamed Kang, who had 14 previous convictions, was released from prison in May after serving 15 years for sexual assault, but last Friday and Sunday he killed two women, one of whom was murdered after he destroyed his monitoring anklet. Plus, Kang fanned public anger by not apologizing for his felonies when he showed up in court for the arrest warrant hearing, Tuesday, kicking reporters' microphones and saying, "I regret not killing more people."

A man who allegedly murdered two women tries to kick reporters while being taken to the Seoul Eastern District Court for his arrest warrant review, Tuesday. Yonhap
A man who allegedly murdered two women tries to kick reporters while being taken to the Seoul Eastern District Court for his arrest warrant review, Tuesday. Yonhap

In the wake of the serious crimes, Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the main opposition People Power Party repeated his support for capital punishment, Tuesday, saying Yang deserves the death penalty.

"If I'm elected president, I will put serious criminals like him to death," he wrote on Facebook.

Hong, one of the competitive presidential hopefuls in the opposition bloc, also criticized the nation's stance toward the death penalty.

"While proponents of the death penalty are labeled as the extreme right, those who oppose it are praised as human rights activists," Hong said.

"In addition, whether to carry out executions is serving as a yardstick to classify between civilized and uncivilized countries."

He added, "The United States and Japan have been executing criminals every year; are they uncivilized?"

Debates on whether to abolish capital punishment have continued here, with the Constitutional Court reviewing the issue for more than two years.

Abolitionists claim the death penalty is inhumane punishment that undermines human dignity and a state has no authority to deprive the people of the right to life. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has also taken that stance officially.

However, opinions differ even among state organizations. The justice ministry submitted a written opinion to the Constitutional Court in February 2020 favoring capital punishment.

"It cannot be overlooked that the death penalty is still functioning as a necessary evil devised to interlock between human fear of death and the desire to retaliate against crime," it said at the time.

However, Korea also voted for a United Nations resolution calling for the suspension of the death penalty in November 2020.

Previously, the U.N. adopted similar resolutions but Korea abstained out of concerns that it may stir controversy over possible abolition of the punitive measure.

As of 2020, a total of 60 criminals remain on death row here.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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