Off with Their Heads! Execution in Korea

The death penalty has become a hot topic lately after #SorryJeongin. Shawn covers the history of gruesome and famous executions in Korean history and the state of South Korea’s death penalty today.

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Notes

  • Death penalty is in the news again because of Jeong-in case
  • History & legend – of course, criminal execution dates back centuries
    • mid-6th century: Yi Cha-don
      • purposely gave himself up to bring Buddhism to Shilla
    • late-12th century: Manjeok
      • peasant uprisings occurred against government (1182, 1193, 1198)
      • slaves in Gaeseong led by Manjeok
        • they sought emancipation and power
      • movement failed; Manjeok and others were executed
    • mid-13th century: Son Dol
      • during Mongol invasions (1232), King Gojong of Goryeo moved government operations to Ganghwa Island
      • ferryman Son Dol was accused of being a traitor; was executed
      • Gojong realized he was wrong and committed a special day to honour Son Dol called Son-Dol-nal; ritual is Son-Dol-je to appease his spirit
    • mid-15th century: King Sejong’s execution orders
      • according to some, Sejong was superstitious of executions
        • they could cause crop failures
      • he removed capital punishment from the legal system
      • crime increased, especially theft
      • Sejong decided to reinstate capital punishment
      • 500+ criminals were executed from around 1447-48 to 1450
      • Also executed Hocho in 1429
    • Joseon Dynasty
      • two types of legal execution: strangling and dismemberment
        • severed heads were sometimes displayed (called 효수)
        • slow slicing/lingering death was also applied (called 능지처참)
          • this had various types
            • 육시 was simply beheading
            • 오살 was full dismemberment 
            • 거열 was having one’s body pulled apart by cattle
        • royalty could often be given poison (사사)
      • executions often took place between autumn and end of winter/beginning of spring
      • serious convicts were executed immediately (usually crimes against government: rebellion, insurrection, treason, etc)
      • Well known cases of execution in Joseon include:
        • Catholics
        • Min family
        • Jeon Bongjun
  • 20th century
    • executions continued throughout 20th century post-Occupation era
      • treason, rebellion, and serial murder were most common reasons
    • government’s official reason was to create deterrent
      • no evidence this works
      • US: states with death penalty have higher rates of murder than states without death penalty 
    • government increased death sentences starting late 1990
      • purpose was to reduce violent crime
    • movements against the death penalty grew from the 90s, started in 89 (Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, established by lawyers and correctional experts)
    • 1992: Justice Ministry argued death penalty must continue but with more careful supervision
    • 1992: Constitutional Court listened to arguments for and against
      • death penalty was found constitutional
        • support again in 2010
    • last executions: Dec. 1997 – 23 executed including Kim Seonja
      • method: hanging
    • death penalty became inactive in 1998; remains a sentence
      • approx. 60 are on death row
      • mandated by 23 laws including Criminal Law, National Security Law, Cultural Heritage Protection Act
    • various attempts have been made/suggested by officials to reactivate death penalty
    • recent appeals to fully abolish death penalty
      • Feb. 2019: Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea
    • support for death penalty on the rise
      • 80% of Koreans support death penalty if no other option is available (14% increase from previous survey); if alternatives were suitable, 70% agreed with abolition (2019 National Human Rights Commission survey)
    • Death penalty is in the news again because of Jeong-in case
      • prosecution has demanded the death penalty 
      • Jeong-in Act stipulates child abusers can be charged with murder, even if death was unintentional
      • death penalty is now possible

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