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What Happened in Courtrooms in 2004?

Posted December. 27, 2004 23:00,   


In 2004, as the Constitutional Court produced quite a number of sensational decisions, the general public paid more attention to the court and courtrooms than ever.

The Constitutional Court had to deal with sensitive issues including the impeachment attempt against President Roh, disputes around the relocation of the administrative capital, the National Security Law and conscientious objections over mandatory military service.

Legal experts observed this year, saying that Korea has seen a big leap in the “rule of law” as people have sought reasonable solutions to politically, socially, or economically important matters through legal procedures.

Still, some point out that the fact that divisive issues had to be handled in courtrooms signifies that each field of Korean society is not able to coordinate or solve problems on their own.

The Impeachment Motion against President Roh-

In May, the Constitutional Court dismissed the impeachment case. The president had been kept from exercising his powers for two months after the National Assembly passed the bill to impeach President Roh. He was able to get back to work with the decision from the Constitutional Court.

While the court dropped the impeachment case, it also warned, “A president is given authority by the constitution. Therefore, if he disregards the constitution, it would be the same as him denying his own authority. In this respect, any president must respect the constitution.”

The impeachment case was the first time in the history of constitutional rule that the authority of a Korean president clashed with that of the National Assembly. Some observers commented that the case helped change the public’s perception of the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court Ruled Relocation of the Administrative Capital is Unconstitutional-

In October, the Constitutional Court ruled against the Special Law for the Relocation of the Administrative Capital. The special law lost its validity and the government’s effort to relocate the capital failed.

In the decision, the Constitutional Court recognized the existence of a “customary constitution” and was praised since it improved civil rights. However, legal and social disputes over the customary constitution intensified, and people in Chungcheong areas continued to voice their complaints.

The National Security Law: Another Source of Discord-

In August, politicians engaged in fierce disputes over the abolition of the National Security law, and both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court delivered decisions confirming the legitimacy and significance of the law.

On several provisions, including praising North Korea, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor, saying, “After the 1991 amendment of the security law, the law has no ambiguity and thus can hardly be stretched.”

The Supreme Court also confirmed the imprisonment of Mr. Lee, who was accused of breaching the National Security law. The court added, “It cannot be viewed that North Korea is no longer an enemy state and that the security law has lost its force.”

In July, the Seoul High Court also sentenced Germany-based scholar Song Du-yul to three years in jail and five-year probation, reversing the lower court’s decision. The professor was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the first trial on the charge of violation of the security law.

Conscientious Objectors at Center of Attention-

In May, Judge Lee Jeong-ryeol of the Seoul Southern District Court voted for acquittal of Mr. Jeong (23) and others who refused to serve in the military for religious reasons for the first time ever.

Contrary to the decision, in July, the Supreme Court wrapped up the whole matter by confirming the one-and-a-half year imprisonment of Mr. Choi (23), another conscientious objector. The court explained, “Conscience cannot come before military obligation.” At the time, some justices mentioned the necessity of alternatives to military service.

By the same token, in August, the Constitutional Court ruled relevant military service rules constitutional when the unconstitutionality of the rules was re-examined by the court.

The Decision on Illegal Political Funds in the Presidential Election-

Although the public hailed the prosecution’s investigations into illegal financing in the election, disappointment and criticism followed as dishonest politicians were subject to lowered punishments in the appellate court. The public dubbed the decision “discounted punishment.”

Choi Don-woong, a former Grand National Party politician, was sentenced to one year in jail, down from three years, and Ahn Hee-jeong, a confidant of the president, was sentenced to one year in jail, down from two-and-a-half years. Both Seo Jeong-woo, a lawyer (sentenced to four years in jail at the first trial) and Kim Young-il, a former GNP Secretary General (sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail at the first trial) were subjected to two years of imprisonment. Lee Sang-soo (sentenced to one year in jail at the first trial), a former lawmaker, was sentenced to probation.

More Caution When Misfeasance Is Concerned-

In August, the Supreme Court annulled a lower court’s decision on former executives of Seoul Guarantee Insurance Co. accused of causing financial losses to their company by offering a huge sum of loan guarantees to insolvent firms such as Hanbo and Sammi, and sent the case back to the lower court.

Misfeasance had to be applied after reviewing all the relevant information and possible consequences if the authorities are not to cause corporate activities to dwindle. The Supreme Court’s decision is based on the principle that executives should be held responsible for management failures with more caution, and thus was welcomed by corporate executives as the “decision of the year.”

Sang-Rok Lee myzodan@donga.com