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Many activists and human rights groups have said it is inhumane.

Why are there bills proposing banning the death penalty?

Jan 15,2008
Human rights activists met in front of the National Assembly on Dec. 30, 2007 to celebrate Korea’s 10-year moratorium on the death penalty. [NEWSIS]
As human rights activists in Korea clamored for a formal ban on capital punishment, the country marked the 10th anniversary of its moratorium on the death penalty on Dec. 30, 2007.
Amnesty International, a global human rights group, had labeled South Korea “retentionist” until recently. That means the group classified South Korea as seeking to keep the death penalty. Since Korea hasn’t executed anyone in 10 years, however, Amnesty International will change Korea’s classification to “an abolitionist in practice.” That means that although the Korean government has not officially banned the death penalty, the country does not use that form of punishment anymore.
Abolition of the death penalty has become a global trend. According to Amnesty International, 133 countries have ended capital punishment by law or practice. Sixty-four nations and territories continue the practice.
The last instance of capital punishment in Korea was under the Kim Young-sam administration. Twenty-three convicts were executed on Dec. 30, 1997, only 12 days after Kim Dae-jung was elected as Kim Young-sam’s successor. It had been customary for an administration to execute prisoners sentenced to death en masse at the end of its term.
Since the South Korean government was established in 1948, at least 900 people have been executed, mostly by hanging, according to Amnesty International Korea.
There have been no executions since the Kim Dae-jung administration. Kim Dae-jung himself was once sentenced to death as a political prisoner in 1980 by a military regime. The liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration has likewise refrained from executions.
Although the practice of capital punishment has been suspended for a decade, 64 prisoners in Korea have been sentenced to death as of Dec. 30, 2007. The last to be sentenced to death was Jeong Nam-gyu in April 2007 for serial murder of 13 women.
To mark the 10th year of the moratorium, activists gathered in front of the National Assembly on Dec. 30. They released 64 doves, symbolizing the number of prisoners on death row. The activists also demanded that the government formally ban capital punishment.
Campaigns to officially remove the death penalty from Korea’s criminal codes began in the early 1970s. Lee Byung-min, a lawyer who headed Amnesty International’s Korea office at the time, initiated the movement. The campaign gained momentum in 1989, which Amnesty International designated as the year to ban the death penalty.
The call for formal abolition has grown steadily in Korea, particularly among human rights advocates and religious figures. In May 2006, the National Human Rights Commission issued an official statement on the matter. The independent rights watchdog recommended that South Korea ban the death penalty, although its opinion is non-binding.
In October 2007, former President Kim Dae-jung, Ahn Kyong-whan, head of the National Human Rights Commission, and Venerable Jigwan, head of the Jogyeo Order, Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, declared that Korea had abolished the death penalty in practice.
Since 2000, the National Assembly has seen three bills pushed to formally remove the death penalty from the nation’s criminal code, but none were successful.
The latest attempt was in December 2004, when Representative Yoo Ihn-tae submitted a bill to end capital punishment and replace it with life sentence in prison without parole. The bill, sponsored by 175 lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition parties, is still pending at the legislative and judiciary committee of the National Assembly.
After it passes committee, it will be introduced to the floor for voting. The legislative committee reviewed the bill last February and a public hearing took place in April. However, the members of the legislative committee have changed since then, and nine of the new 16-member panel have not yet signed the bill to abolish the death penalty. The bill is still pending, waiting to be endorsed and moved to the main floor for a vote.
Another development in ending the death penalty came on Dec. 31, when President Roh pardoned six convicts by reducing their death penalties to lifetime imprisonment.
The move was welcomed by Amnesty International’s Korea office. “It is great news for the people who have campaigned to abolish Korea’s death penalty over the past decades,” the organization said. “When the United Nations General Assembly adopted a moratorium on the death penalty [on Dec. 18], South Korea embarrassingly abstained. The government, although belatedly, has now decided to promote human rights by reducing the death sentences of six prisoners to lifetime imprisonment. It is news of hope to many people around the world.”
The fate of the death penalty in Korea now remains in question as a new conservative administration takes office on Feb. 25.
President-elect Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party, who is a Christian elder, has said he would maintain the death penalty but use it with restraint.


By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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