Final WordsSince 1945, when independence arrived, 1,634 people have been executed in Korea. Of those, 71 have said their final words to Moon Jang-sik and received his blessing.
The Presbyterian minister has witnessed the execution of many people he feels should not have been put to death, who would have been better off with life sentences in prison. Nevertheless, the current law is the law, so Mr. Moon stands by the execution of prisoners.
For the last 20 years he has been a member of the religious board of the Seoul Detention Center, and is also the senior pastor at Sangmoon Presbyterian Church.
The call for duty always comes unexpectedly. Often, Mr. Moon, 66, is notified late at night, the day before an execution. Even then, he is merely told that his service is required. Taking a cab to the Seoul Detention Center, in Uiwang, Gyeonggi province, his mind is always burdened because he knows that someone is about to lose his life.
Mr. Moon vividly remembers the execution of Kim Gi-hwan, then 27, in 1995. Mr. Kim was the head of Jijonpa, a gang of thugs that made headlines by kidnapping and killing "rich people." When Mr. Moon arrived at the Seoul Detention Center's execution room, which is actually one big room and smaller room where hangings take place, a Buddhist monk and a Roman Catholic priest already had taken seats. After being asked to identify himself by an official from the prosecutors office, Mr. Kim was told that he could speak. His final words: "Please tell my mother that I am starting to walk the road to a new life."
A black, hemp hood was put over his head and a thick noose tightened around Mr. Kim's neck. Soon, the wood floor dropped away and Mr. Kim was gone. A medical officer standing by checked the body and confirmed the death of one of Korea's more notorious criminals.
Hanging has been the means of execution in Korea since 1945. The military executes by firing squad.
In 1995, the second inmate from the Jijonpa gang to be executed was Kim Hyun-yang, then 23. At the time he was caught, this Mr. Kim said that he regretted he had not killed everyone who should be killed. Just before he died, Mr. Moon placed his hand on Mr. Kim's head and baptized him. Saying that he was sorry for his actions, Mr. Kim died quietly that day. That same day four other members of the Jijonpa gang and six other prisoners were put to death by hanging. Mr. Moon witnessed each execuion.
In Mr. Moon's eyes, many of the prisoners who become born again in their final hours on earth should receive lesser punishments, such as life imprisonment.
Even though the Kim Dae-jung administration has put an end to the death penalty, the law since 1945 has not been changed and there are still 55 prisoners on death row scattered about Korea's prisons.
Another execution that the priest says still haunts him after many years is the death of Choi Eun-soo, then 30, who was known to have committed murder and armed robbery with a rifle in 1984. Right up until his death, Mr. Choi asked God in his final statement to forgive the judge, prosecutor and witness who had made false statements.
Seeing Mr. Choi's unswerving sincerity, and after witnessing numerous executions, Mr. Moon started to think about the real meaning of "re-education." His belief in the need to end capital punishment was strengthened even more after a mother committed suicide a year after her son was executed in 1987. Mr. Moon argues that even with capital punishment, horrible crimes do not stop, and there is always a chance of making a mistake. He also points out that some situations might be used for political purposes, such as the Inhyeokdang incident in 1975, which turned out to be planned by the National Intelligence Service in order to calm student uprisings and give the government an upper hand.
"Life is the most valuable thing on earth an d it can't be exchanged with anything," Mr. Moon says. "And that goes even for criminals. Executing criminals because they have killed someone is nothing but revenge on a public level. Trying to prevent crime with merciless revenge is fundamentally wrong." He also says that killing another person just gives birth to more ill will.
Mr. Moon began ministering to criminals in 1983 when he joined Chungwoohei, an organization that helps out prisoners with their religious needs. In April 2001, he formed an organization, Confederation Against the Death Penalty, that is entirely dedicated to abandoning the death penalty, and he has so far collected 155 signatures from lawmakers. He has baptized 1,500 people who, according to Mr. Moon, have begun "new lives."
"I seek forgiveness from the victims family," Kim Hyun-yang had said at the Seoul Detention Center just before being executed. "I have come here because I committed a crime, but I am very happy that I have received salvation." Those words from Mr. Kim have become a driving force for Mr. Moon as he continues to make his trips to the Seoul Detention Center at least once a week to teach religion classes. Often, prisoners agree to donate organs after their deaths, and donate money that they receive in prison to needy people as well.
Mr. Moon plans to continue his fight to ban capital punishment even in the worst of criminals. "Although someone may have committed a crime that might be judged as unforgivable," Mr. Moon says, "I believe that this idea is a mistake. The simple fact that many of the criminals take on religion is proof of the good nature in them. It's not an easy job, but that does not permit us to just forget about them."
The last execution in Korea occurred in December 1997 at the end of former president Kim Young-sam's term. Twenty-three people, including four women, were executed during President's Kim's five years in office.
Mr. Moon prays that temporary stays of execution permanent in Korea. "Jesus Christ himself was on death row," says Mr. Moon, "As I talk with the inmates and share their burdens, I have earned that life is precious and that it has to be respected."
Jijonpa -- A group of six led by Kim Gi-hwan killed several people and ate the remnants of the victims in 1994 under the pretext that they wanted to kill all rich people. Most of those killed people were kidnapped from the Hyundai department stores' parking lots because they believed that it was the place where they could easily get the richest people.
Inhyeokdang -- Under the military regime of former President Park Chung Hee, a student uprising in 1974 was branded as an operation being backed by the Inmin Hyeok Myung party under North Korea's orders. Eight people that belonged to the Mincheonghakryeon, an outlawed student organization, were executed under a special state of emergency less than 10 hours after the accused's final appeal had been rejected by the Supreme Court in April of 1975.
by Lee Man-hoon