[FOUNTAIN]Making the law fit the times

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[FOUNTAIN]Making the law fit the times

The Punishment of Minor Offenses Act lets us get a glimpse of our society. After the law was enacted in 1954, leaving a chimney uncleaned or selling snakes on the street was subject to punishment. Giving private dance lessons or cutting into a line at a theater was also considered a minor offense. When the law was revised in 1963, attracting patients by advertising cures by superstitious methods and excessive exposure of the body that could make other people feel uneasy or embarrassed were added to the list of offenses.
In 1973, men’s hair length was regulated, and spreading groundless rumors was added to the list. The provision on spreading rumors was often exploited to suppress criticism of the government. In the 1970s and ’80s, policemen used to chase long-haired men with a club, scissors and hair clippers, and stop women in mini-skirts to measure the exposed part of the legs to make sure that less than 30 centimeters of bare skin was exposed between the knee and the skirt. The police had to stage such absurd scenes because long hair and “excessive exposure” were defined as minor offenses. The clauses related to hair length and spreading rumors were removed from the law in 1988. But the restriction on excessive exposure is still in effect, and women wearing tops that exposed their midriffs were subject to punishment even in the ’90s.
Despite the changes, the general frame of the Punishment of Minor Offenses Act is still intact. The fine, which was originally 2,500 won, was doubled in 1989 and raised six-fold in 1991. Today, the fine is 100,000 won. Many of the 54 provisions are no longer in effect. A chimney has become a nostalgic item, and dance no longer represents a decadent culture. Street vendors selling snakes are nowhere to be found.
Defining who is subject to punishment is also very ambiguous. It is hard to determine when someone is violating a provision on creating a sense of anxiety or failing to report someone asking for help. The ambiguous law can be stretched to be applied arbitrarily.
The National Police Agency has decided to completely revise the Punishment of Minor Offenses Act. The law has been criticized for having many provisions that are unrealistic and that mass-produce offenders ― 1.2 milion last year.
In Greek mythology, Prokrustes, an innkeeper, considered his bed the standard of the world. He asked guests to lie down in his bed, and if the guest was too tall, he cut off part of the guest’s legs. If the guest was too short, the guest would be stretched out to fit the bed. The Punishment of Minor Offenses Act is turning into a Prokrustes’ bed. Laws have to change with the times.


by Ko Dae-hoon

The writer is a deputy city news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.
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