Panelists discuss whether to maintain or scrap capital punishment at a National Assembly conference room in Seoul, Feb. 18. The seminar was organized by Rep. Park Sun-young, third from right, of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party (LFP). British Ambassador to Korea Martin Uden is seen at second from left. / Korea Times
By Brother Anthony of Taize
While we are still celebrating the moral, political and spiritual vision to which Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan devoted his life, it would be important to recall his intense opposition to the death penalty.
He was a true pastor and father for many of those condemned to death. He several times went into prisons to baptize and confirm people who, in the face of imminent death by execution, had discovered the eternal mercy and compassion of God.
He knew them by name, he followed their cases, he often asked prison chaplains about them, he tried to give them hope and comfort. And he suffered dreadfully when they were slaughtered in the name of justice.
He would have been extremely sad to know that as he lay dying, voices were being raised in Korea to demand the resumption of executions, the hanging of those under sentence of death. That some of those voices claimed to speak in the name of Christian churches would have appalled him even more.
He knew, as many perhaps do not, that a disproportionate number of those sentenced to death in Korea (as in other countries) had been given the death sentence because of their underprivileged social origins and background.
Someone who grows up in poverty in the slums, with a broken or no home, without love and without education, without prospects amidst systematic violence, is easily tempted to crime, and is also probably more likely than most to lash out and happen to kill someone in a moment of blind fury.
The vast majority of those condemned are of that kind. They are not cold-blooded serial killers or child-killers. They are poor folk, unable to hire a famous lawyer to plead eloquently in their defense.
The Korean ``Justice Ministry'' recently released the results of a survey indicating that 64 percent of Koreans wished to see those under sentence of death executed.
In view of a recent media campaign centered on the current investigation of some particularly horrific killings, which has at times deliberately seemed to encourage a lynch-mob mentality, I think that the figure is surprisingly low.
Clearly, very many Koreans do not favor the idea that blood demands blood, that a death demands a death, that the state should be the agent of retribution and revenge.
I put the ``Justice Ministry'' in quotes because that is not in fact its Korean name. It is the ``Ministry for the Administration of Law'' and they are not in the philosophical business of questions about the nature of justice.
Two brave presidents have now, for more than 10 years, resisted intense pressure from that ministry in their resolve that no more human lives should be taken by the Korean state.
They were helped by the memory of the unspeakable, black day, Dec. 31, 1997, when 23 people were put to death in the space of a few hours because the ministry knew that the next president would never allow it, Kim Dae-jung himself having been sentenced to death.
I do not know what the then president thought he was doing when he signed those papers. How could such a hecatomb transform Korea into a more compassionate, more human, more developed society?
Unfortunately, the Korean Constitution does not seem to allow the president to exercise easily the right to commute a death sentence into life imprisonment, and again the ministry seems to have been determined to block any such moves.
Therefore there are now 58 people under sentence of death, some of them for many years. It is urgent that those who can make laws should change the law and abolish the death penalty here. Until that happens, Korea is in danger of returning to the Killing Club, along with China, Japan, North Korea and the United States.
At least, in the United States, the number of death sentences imposed each year has dropped by 60 percent over the last 10-15 years.
There are now 138 countries where executions have ceased completely, and the abolition of the death penalty is a prior condition for any country wishing to join the European Union.
Those who demand an immediate resumption of executions in Korea mostly justify it in terms of deterrence, although it seems most unlikely that people are prevented from killing by the thought of being executed, if they are not prevented by the thought that it is wrong to kill.
The main reason seems really to be retribution, a life for a life. The ancient notion that a killer must die before his victim's soul can find peace, a form of exorcism, familiar as Hamlet's father's ghost, survives in dark corners everywhere.
In Korea we are not so far from violent events so terrible that they have still not been properly investigated, the mass executions of thousands of civilians, many without any kind of trial, before and at the start of the 1950-53 Korean War, with formal presidential consent.
The wounds inherited from this recent example of a state's brutal contempt for justice and human life only make the campaign against the death penalty more urgent, but also perhaps more arduous here. There are still those who would say it was well done.
British Ambassador to Korea Martin Uden speaking at a recent seminar on this subject at the National Assembly put the fundamental reason for abandoning the death sentence very simply and clearly: ``it is a sign that society has reached a level of maturity where it is no longer acceptable to take life in the name of the state, other than in self-defense or on the battlefield … abolition is a sign that everyone has the right to life and does not forfeit that right even if the most terrible crime has been committed.''
Cardinal Kim sometimes worried that Koreans seem not to have a universal concept of ``the human person,'' of each person being invested with an inalienable right to life as an individual.
He believed that the life of every person was so sacred that the state must never be allowed to execute, that no human being or society has the right to tell a person, ``You deserve to die.''
In such a vision, the role of the state in today's world is not to satisfy the population's occasional craving for bloodshed in revenge, when terrible crimes occur, but to administer law in such a way that all citizens, including the criminal, are helped to understand just what is meant by the inalienable dignity of the human person.
That the penal system across the world, even without executions, is far from that goal is the real issue facing society today, everywhere.
The writer is emeritus professor at the department of English language and literature, Sogang University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.