Brutal slaying testing tacit ban on capital punishment
The controversy was stoked Tuesday after Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam said the government is “carefully reviewing the possibility of carrying out executions.”
During his visit to Cheongsong Prison, where many of the nation’s worst offenders are housed, Lee ordered the construction of an execution facility there.
Mentioning the names of some high-profile, convicted rapist-murderers, Lee said those who received death penalties from district courts should be held at Cheongsong during their appeals.
The minister also said the vocational training facility at the prison should be relocated and Cheongsong should be transformed into a prison with the maximum possible security.
Lee said he had a resumption of capital punishment in mind when he ordered the construction of an execution facility. However, he added, “We will make the decision very carefully, taking into account public opinion and diplomatic relations with other nations.”
Shortly after the prime suspect in the Busan rape and slaying was arrested, Grand National Party floor leader Ahn Sang-soo urged the government to carry out executions of death row inmates.
“Under the country’s criminal litigation laws, the execution should take place within six months of the final confirmation of a death sentence,” Ahn said. “The Constitutional Court has also consistently ruled that the death penalty is constitutional.”
The last execution in Korea took place in December 1997. As of today, 57 inmates sit on death row nationwide.
Not everybody seemed to want a policy change.
“I am opposed to a continuation of an antediluvian system where the public authority is allowed to take lives in the 21st century,” said National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o. “Taking into account Korea’s international reputation and position, the country must not lose its honor as a nation respecting the right to life.”
Amnesty International has classified South Korea as a death penalty abolitionist in practice.
Another senior GNP lawmaker, Nam Kyung-pil, said yesterday he agreed with a policy of locking up vicious convicts for the rest of their lives. But Nam said that is different from a policy of resuming executions.
While the GNP is split, opposition parties and rights activist made clear their opposition to the resumption of executions.
However, religious groups were divided. While the Catholic, Buddhist and the National Council of Churches in Korea oppose the resumption of executions, the more conservative Protestant group the Christian Council of Korea said death row inmates should be executed.
Those who support executions have argued that carrying out capital punishment is an effective method to prevent crime.
The justice minister’s latest remarks, particularly the order to build an execution facility at Cheongsong Prison, were seen as a strong message.
“Until now, death row inmates have been detained at facilities around big cities,” said Kim Gang-wuk, spokesman of the justice ministry. “Moving them to a maximum security facility at Cheongsong Prison is appropriate, and it is also necessary to build the execution facility.”
Another justice ministry official, however, predicted that the government won’t soon execute death row inmates.
“The final decision is up to the president,” said the official. “It is difficult for the government to carry out executions at this point.”
The international community is expected to react negatively if Korea decides to resume executions.
The European Union has a policy of not signing free trade agreements with countries that practice executions. The British government also recently expressed regret when the Constitutional Court of Korea upheld the country’s laws allowing capital punishment.
By Ser Myo-ja, Park Sung-woo [firstname.lastname@example.org]