Judging the judgesThe recent local Seoul court ruling clearing Kang Ki-kab, chairman of the minority opposition Democratic Labor Party, on charges of obstructing the public duties of the National Assembly has sent many scratching their heads over the legal interpretation of violence. The ruling justifies the act of violence at the National Assembly and raises suspicions that the outcome was influenced by the personal beliefs of the judge.
The prosecutor’s office issued an unusually strong statement decrying the verdict. “The people are the witnesses,” the statement said. “If this is not an act of violence, how can we seek punishment for the use of violence and the destruction of public property?”
We cannot censure a judge’s ruling. But this case might create a lack of trust in the justice system. Kang himself, after all, confessed that his actions were excessive. The ruling is also out of tune with other cases involving the use of violence in the public arena. Civilians are fined or prosecuted if they break things or attack property at public offices like police stations.
We want to believe that our judges abide by their constitutional duties to make decisions with their conscience - and free of any influence - according to the Constitution and the country’s laws. Under this structure, all cases can be ruled on differently depending on the circumstances, procedures and people involved.
But with several recent rulings, it’s tough to shake off the suspicion that individual opinion rather than legal interpretation played the deciding factor. Democratic Party lawmaker Moon Hak-jin was sentenced to pay fines on charges identical to those levied on Kang: use of physical force and violence to protest the Grand National Party’s attempt to pass the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement a year ago. The fine was not big, but he was at least still found guilty. Similar charges on 12 members of the Democratic Labor Party, however, were overruled by a judge who is a member of a progressive group of his peers.
The prosecution has filed a motion against the court in the Yongsan fire case, saying it cannot trust the appellate court that ruled in favor of the disclosure of confidential investigation records. The judge of the court is also a member of the same progressive group. We therefore can’t help but suspect that some judges are being swayed by personal ideological preferences and beliefs. Judges are bound by the law to stay independent of political activities. The justice system will be seriously undermined if the political preferences of judges play a role in the verdict.