[FOUNTAIN]The power to pardon can damage societyForgiveness is beautiful. After Kang Won-rae, a member of the popular dance group Clone, was in a traffic accident and lost the use of his legs, he told the offending driver not to feel guilty about it. Such forgiveness is beyond beautiful; it is sacred.
But there is nothing harder than forgiving one’s enemy. Even the German poet Heinrich Heine, who had written many beautiful odes, said, “We should forgive our enemies, but only after they have been hanged first.”
Pardoning is easier, though. Millions of people are pardoned at a time in Korea. Pardons are not beautiful. The Chinese character for “pardon” is made up of the characters for “red” and “whipping.” To pardon is to forgive someone after they have been whipped to the point of bleeding. If someone is pardoned before he has paid for his crime, then there must be another motive involved. A pardon can be impure, even ugly. That’s why people have warned for so long of its potential for abuse.
The 18th-century Italian Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria denounced the autocratic criminal justice system of his time, and stressed the principle of legality. He is thought of as the pioneer of modern criminal law. He advocated such humanitarian causes as the abolition of torture and capital punishment. But even this progressive philosopher considered pardons to be a ruler’s arbitrary abuse of power, and the other side of the coin called tyranny.
Long before Mr. Beccaria, the sages of the East had seen vice in pardons. The Northern Qi Dynasty prime minister Guanzong said pardon’s benefits were small, and its harms so great that they couldn’t be dealt with for long. King Tang, one of the sage rulers of ancient China, swore to the heavens never to forgive a sinner as he set off to attack the tyrannous King Jie. “Rites of the Zhou,” a Confucian scripture, holds that only three categories of prisoner should be eligible for pardons: those over 80, those under 8 and the mentally abnormal. All of these sages were trying to keep the indiscriminate use of pardons from threatening the spirit of the law and undermining social justice.
Many lawbreakers are being spared in the special amnesty commemorating today’s 60th anniversary of the nation’s liberation. Pardons, a product of the monarchy, seem to be more actively used in these times of constitutional democracy. Those who benefited from the amnesty may repay their gratitude with votes in the next election, but constitutional principles have been damaged once again. A fundamental remedy is desperately needed. There can be no progress for a society in which those who abide by the law are disadvantaged.
by Lee Hoon-beom
The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.