[OUTLOOK]Make punishment fit the crime

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[OUTLOOK]Make punishment fit the crime

Michel Foucault’s novel “Discipline and Punish” starts with a scene where a prisoner convicted of regicide is sentenced to be executed. The condemned’s limbs were tied to four horses, to be torn from his torso. As if this was not enough, the executioner then used burning pincers to make sure he was dead. People who had flocked to see the execution carried out in public trembled in horror.
During the Korean Joseon dynasty, condemned people were often put to death in public. Bulls were used instead of horses, and farm tools instead of pincers. Heo Gyun, an author famous for his novel “The Story of Hong Gil-dong,” was beheaded for treason. His head was hung for a while at the lookout of Seoul’s South Gate.
In modern society, cruel punishment on bodies has disappeared and new forms of punishment, such as correction and reformatory instruction, have emerged. This is a more subtle way to punish the guilty.
If an execution is so cruel that people feel sorry for the condemned person, the legitimacy of the punishment is shaken and the judge who decided such a punishment is criticized. To prevent this, these days, dangerous criminals are isolated in maximum security and put through correction courses. Punishment is mental, instead of physical.
What type of punishment is right for Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo? There is no doubt he should be punished for creating a slush fund and giving his assets away in an illegal way because such practices harm the nation’s economy a great deal.
However, is he so dangerous as to be imprisoned for two months? For that time, a good chance to promote Korean cars at the FIFA World Cup stadiums was lost. Plans to build new factories in the Czech Republic and the United States have been postponed.
When exports are already struggling due to a rise in the Korean won, Mr. Chung’s imprisonment worsened the situation in car exports. A petition was presented by tens of thousands of citizens and partner company workers in Ulsan, a metropolitan city in the southeast of Korea. This seems to indicate that imprisoning Mr. Chung’s body was not a good idea.
I do not intend to defend Chairman Chung, who has committed a crime. People argue that after this incident, the management practice where owners of conglomerates have unlimited power has to change in order to enhance companies’ competitiveness. This is a right argument in every sense. But I can’t shake the idea that the method of punishment was not very good.
Hyundai Motor has led economic development in Korea for decades and has become a major exporter in the nation. Mr. Chung is neither a robber nor a dangerous serial killer, if I may take the case to the extreme. Couldn’t the law then take a more flexible approach?
Let’s say a chairman of General Electronics committed the same crime as Mr. Chung. Would a U.S. court take the extreme step of detention or imprisonment for the sake of a fair and speedy investigation?
In the era of globalization, when companies do anything to enhance their corporate images, mental punishment ― investigation under detention or isolation ― is very harsh, perhaps even more cruel than physical punishment in a way.
The other day a South Korean court granted bail for Mr. Chung, judging that his release would lessen damage to the economy and that there was no danger of his hiding evidence or running away.
But it was long after one of the nation’s leading companies had been severely damaged, along with the 68-year-old businessman. Punishment on a businessperson should not lead to damaging his or her company.
Constitutionalism is a basic principle of democracy. But when the economy is involved, constitutionalism can be applied with flexibility. Is it too much to ask politicians to work on measures that do not harm the basics of constitutionalism while achieving the goal of punishment? These measures should be more than simple punishment. The new measures should clear the existing distrust which has resulted in inside reports and should encourage the chairman’s drive at the same time.
It is regrettable that politicians did nothing about the investigation into the Hyundai Motor case. I wonder why they abided by their no-intervention policy, when they have been notoriously nosy in all other kinds of affairs.
Over a large-scale economic incident which has enormous impact on people’s livelihoods, the separation of laws and politics does not always bring about good results.
This is why the economy has been sluggish during this administration, because it has been emphasizing the principle of dividing the economy and politics.
This administration failed to persuade strong workers’ unions and did not revive people’s livelihoods either. One of the politicians in power confused the people by saying that the administration has run the economy successfully while managing the people’s livelihood poorly.
Reviving the economy was cited as a reason for granting bail for Mr. Chung after he was seriously damaged already.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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