[NOTEBOOK]Cardinal Finds 'Better Men' on Death Row

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[NOTEBOOK]Cardinal Finds 'Better Men' on Death Row

The face of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan is bright. How can he smile so joyfully when hugging a complete stranger, a prisoner on death row? In a Seoul prison on Oct. 26 Cardinal Kim met seven prisoners who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism. Afterward he said something surprising.

"These people are better than I am; why do they want to kill these prisoners?"

It is not an exaggeration to say that the cardinal is at the forefront of the movement to abolish capital punishment in Korea. Before he met the prisoners, he had visited the Justice Ministry and insisted on the necessity of abolishing the death sentence. His point is, "Life must be respected." As a senior prelate, Cardinal Kim asserts respect for "life that God created."

If the cardinal had not brought up two exceptional stories at that time, his assertions might be nothing more than ordinary argument.

One story amounted to a veiled warning of a political nature, something the cardinal normally tries to avoid.

"I felt wounded when I saw a series of executions just like a housecleaning at the end of the civilian administration," he said. "If the current government repeats this, the splendor of the Nobel Peace Prize would fade."

Cardinal Kim was drawing President Kim Dae-jung into the picture, in order to prevent the immediate execution. If President Kim carries out mass executions, the cardinal was suggesting, the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was given in appreciation for his lifetime efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights, would erode. The unprecedented warning shows Cardinal Kim's earnestness to stop the execution. It also suggests that he thinks it very likely that executions will be carried out at the end of the current presidential administration.

It is said that the cardinal's speculation rose from rumors circulating around the prison. Twenty-three prisoners were executed at the end of the former President Kim Young-sam's tenure, and 38 prisoners remained on death row as he left office. They are still there, as the current government has not conducted a single execution, and they have been joined by new prisoners. The death row population is now 51. The prison rumor said that the authorities had decided that the appropriate number of prisoners on death row was 30. Cardinal Kim warned against a wave of executions as a way of fixing the number of prisoners on death row at the end of this administration.

The cardinal's second remark explains why he is so active in the campaign against capital punishment. He spoke hesitantly about his experience 35 years ago. In 1966, young Father Kim was a parish priest in Daegu and doing missionary work among prisoners there. Hearing of an imminent execution, he ran to the Daegu prison.

"I beg for forgiveness from families of the victim," the condemned man said. He was led to the scaffold and the noose was put around his neck. There was a clang from a falling stool, and the prisoner dropped from sight amid sounds of cracking wood. The frame had broken. "The prisoner might have died of a heart attack," a warden said, but Father Kim rushed downstairs and saw the man smiling at him.

The priest could find no words of comfort. While he was talking to the prisoner, guards fixed the broken frame. It would take half an hour, they said. At that, the prisoner began to comfort the future prelate instead.

"There is nothing to fear, since I am going to meet God," the prisoner said. "After 30 minutes, I will go to heaven and pray for you."

It was an extraordinary situation ?a prisoner consoling the future cardinal while the hangmen fixed the gallows. Telling the story now, Cardinal Kim emphasizes the words, "a prisoner who repented his own sin." He has since met many such prisoners who, like the man 35 years ago, repented their sin on death row.

Again on Oct. 26, he saw "a purified soul," and that is why he said, "They are better than I am."

The meeting with the prisoners Oct. 26 was a gesture to help legislators who are trying to establish a special law to abolish the death penalty. But Cardinal Kim's unusual remarks were certainly not political rhetoric.


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The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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