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Public Opinion on Capital Punishment

Posted March. 19, 2010 08:08,   


Following the recent rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl in Busan, public opinion is tilting significantly toward the resumption of capital punishment. A national survey of 3,049 adults conducted by the ruling Grand National Party’s think tank found that 91 percent favor carrying out death sentences. Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam says the government is carefully considering executing death row inmates, adding an execution facility will be installed at Cheongsong Correctional Institution in North Gyeongsang Province, where the country’s most hardened criminals are incarcerated. As death row inmates grow restless over the fear of their execution, correctional authorities are on heightened alert.

Under the Code of Criminal Procedures, the justice minister must give an execution order within six months of a sentence’s conclusion. The death sentence must be carried out within five days after the order. Korea, however, has had no executions since December 1997, when 23 death row inmates were put to death. The number of death row inmates is 57, and they remain alive in prison. Strictly speaking, this is a violation of the code. Moreover, the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment last month.

Debate over capital punishment is unlikely to end easily. The dispute is being discussed from a number of perspectives, including effectiveness as a punishment, the possibility of misjudgment, respect for life and human rights, and religious causes. The psychological impact of brutal crimes on the public and legal sentiment should not be disregarded in the discussions. In late 2007, the international community classified Korea a country having abolished the death penalty in practice. The focus of the debate seemed to have moved toward adopting life imprisonment without parole as the ultimate punishment. The Busan rape-and-murder case, however, has rekindled debate over whether capital punishment should start again.

Opinions are divided over whether the death penalty is the severest form of punishment. Critics say life imprisonment is a heavier punishment than the death penalty, which ends a criminal’s suffering in the instant of execution. In the past, the maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay put those who committed heinous crimes in cells with a better view of downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The intent was to give them the pain of knowing that they would never be free again. Public opinion tends to support capital punishment following an inhumane crime. The Korean government should not be swayed by public sentiment but hold more serious social discussions of policy on crime.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)