Amid a serial murder scandal that is shaking the country, voices are calling for the revival of capital punishment, which has been unused for the past few years.
Amnesty International, a human rights group, classified Korea as "abolitionist in practice" in 2007 because the country has not executed anyone in the past 12 years, though capital punishment is still valid.
Capital punishment in Korea was last carried out under the Kim Young-sam government on Dec. 20, 1997 when 23 people were executed.
Presently, 58 are on death row, theoretically awaiting execution, and 19 are serving life sentences after receiving commutation, according to the Justice Ministry.
As the police yesterday rounded off the crime scene investigation regarding serial killer Kang Ho-soon who admitted to killing seven women in the past two years, many are demanding that Kang be sentenced to death.
During the two-day crime scene investigation, Kang calmly demonstrated his crimes without signs of regret or agitation, said witnesses at the scene. Family members of his victims are swearing fierce resistance should the judiciary fail to condemn the murderer to an appropriate sentence.
If accusations against Kang turn out to be true, present criminal law provides that he be handed down the maximum legal sentence. Murder, when combined with rape, is subject to the death penalty or life imprisonment, with corpse abandonment adding another seven years.
A well-known serial killer, Yoo Young-chul, was given a death sentence in 2005 for killing 20 people, tearing their bodies to pieces and burying them. Another murderer, Chung Nam-gyu, was also given the sentence in 2007 for killing 13 people and injuring 20.
The Justice Ministry is skeptical about carrying out the irrevocable criminal sentence, despite mounting public requests.
"In the past scandalous serial murder cases, public opinion also demanded the death of the killers, but it was just not enough to resist the worldwide legal trend of capital punishment abolishment," said a Justice Ministry official. "The very nature of the death sentence is controversial, and Kang's case alone will probably not reverse the present flow of criminal punishment."
Yoo and Chung have been imprisoned for several years as their death sentences have not been carried out.
As of December 2007, 102 countries have abolished the death sentence and 31, including Korea, are classified as "abolitionist in practice," according to figures from the AI. Only 64 countries actually execute the maximum criminal penalty.
Those who sympathize with the ministry's stance point out the global trend against capital punishment, the possibility of judicial misjudgment and the value of human life.
The majority of the public, however, claim that the rights of innocent people should be prioritized.
"Legal authorities will be criticized as populist, should they refuse to sentence Kang Ho-soon to death, citing human rights as reasons," said Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo in a radio interview yesterday.
Criminal statistics from the Justice Ministry also showed a 32 percent increase in murder rates in the 10 years since the government's de facto abolition of the death sentence.
Some say that the government should stop wasting taxes by indefinitely delaying the execution of those condemned to death.
According to government data presented to Rep. Joo Kwang-deok of the ruling Grand National Party during a parliamentary audit last year, the state spends an annual 1.59 million won ($1,100) to keep a condemned criminals in prison.
Amid rising disputes over capital punishment, one of the oldest punishments in history, the Constitutional Court is to hold an open discussion on the legitimacy of the death sentence in June.