South Korea Faces Death Penalty Questions

Although the death penalty hasn't been practiced in South Korea for 15 years, outrage over one case involving 42-year-old ethnic Korean from China looks like it may be revived.

Surveillance cameras caught footage of Wu Yuanchun shortly before he pounced on his 28-year-old female victim, who was walking home after dark. He can be seen hiding in the shadows on a street in a suburb of Seoul, assaults the woman, then drags her to his apartment where she is raped and murdered.

The case has all the characteristics of an evocative crime: a young, innocent victim, seemingly random circumstances, extreme cruelty, a textbook villain with bad facial hair. It has many South Koreans calling for Wu to be executed in accordance with his sentence, for the long-inactive death penalty to be dusted off and brought back into practice, if only just for this one case.

This case is extraordinary in several ways. After the trial, it was made public that in kidnapping the victim, Wu might have had other motives that were even more depraved than simple violence or sexual assault. Wu spent six hours dismembering the body with extreme precision and care. The equally sized portions were then stored carefully in plastic bags. These details have given ammunition to proponents of the death penalty.

The fact that Wu is an ethnic Korean from China also hasn’t won him many friends. There is speculation that Wu may belong to a gang of Korean-Chinese criminals involved in the trafficking of human flesh that is sold for medicinal purposes. This comes on the heels of a case of what are said to have been pills made of baby flesh that arrived in South Korea from China and are believed to have been intended for Korean-Chinese living here.

In the same week that Wu committed the murder, another ethnic Korean from China allegedly stabbed to death a worker at a job placement agency out of frustration over unpaid wages. Most South Koreans aren’t crazy about Korean-Chinese to begin with and these cases have further damaged how their ethnic brethren from across the border are viewed and treated.

Ethnic Koreans from China are entitled to shorter visas and stricter rules of employment than ethnic Koreans from wealthier countries like the US, Canada or Japan. "The South Korean government treats ethnic Koreans from the US and Japan as part of the same race, but it treats us like aliens. But we're a minority in China too; we're treated as foreigners in both countries,” said Kim Sook-ja, head of the Korean Compatriots United Congress, a civic group representing ethnic Koreans in China.

But everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. "Even if the death penalty is an inhuman punishment that strips a human being of his life, we have no choice but to hold him sternly accountable,” the Suwon district court said in explanation of its decision, a statement suggestive of the tussle between logic and the emotive longing for vengeance that is at the heart of the debate over capital punishment.

It also speaks to the lack of clarity on the death penalty here. Though no one has been executed since 1997, South Korea’s death penalty moratorium is strictly unofficial: no legislation or amendments to legislation have been passed formalizing its elimination. Like other aspects of South Korea’s dictatorial history, it lingers in the background and pops up in response to extreme events. It is sort of the opposite of abortion and prostitution in South Korea, which are both illegal but widely practiced. The death penalty is legal but dormant.

Capital punishment has been debated in South Korea for years. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was not a violation of the country’s constitution. In its ruling, the court stated that death sentences should only be carried out in “exceptional cases.” Determining what constitutes an ‘exceptional case’ would apparently be a matter of judicial discretion.

Momentum towards abolishing the death penalty was initiated by liberal president Kim Dae-jung, who ruled from 1997 to 2002. In 1980, a military court sentenced Kim to death on charges of treason. After his release from prison he became the first South Korean president to have no executions carried out under his watch.

Kim won a Nobel Peace prize for spearheading the Sunshine Policy, an approach of dialogue and engagement with North Korea. Kim’s stances on the North and the death penalty show levels of nuance and compassion that are unusual among world leaders.

In addition to the initial shock over the brutality of the crime, South Korean netizens are incensed that Wu has had the temerity to appeal his sentence in a higher court. Wu’s lawyers are seeking a lighter sentence from a High Court (the initial ruling was by a district court, the lowest rung on South Korea’s three-step legal ladder).

In “Reflections on the guillotine”, Albert Camus’s essay on capital punishment, the French author writes, “People write about capital punishment as if they were whispering.” There are few hushed voices discussing Wu’s crimes in South Korea.

“Execute him in the most brutal way possible. Don’t make a fuss over human rights or anything like that,” said one commenter in an online café.

In 1997 on the last day executions were carried out in South Korea, 23 people were put to death. Wu’s legal battle could last as long one or two years if it makes it to the Supreme Court, meaning South Koreans will have to wait before finding out if Wu will end the country’s15-year streak without an execution. Over that time public sentiment will calm at least somewhat and whatever decision is reached can be made at a time with emotions not running as high.