South Korea's Death Penalty: Forgotten, But Not Gone

March 4, 2010

South Korea is, to my knowledge, the only place in the world where a former death row inmate went on to become President of the country (and to win the Nobel Peace Prize too). Kim Dae-jung was one of many political prisoners sentenced to death in South Korea in the 1980s. Amnesty International has issued a powerful short film about that era and the people who survived it. Interviews with the former President, and other former political prisoners, are interspersed with interviews with the man who served as Kim Dae-jung’s jailer.

South Korea has come a long way since the 1980s, and capital punishment, while still on the books, is no longer really used.  There have been no executions in more than 10 years.  Nonetheless, South Korea’s Constitutional Court recently ruled that the death penalty was still constitutional, though just barely.  The vote was 5-4.

Many countries that have moved to abolish the death penalty have done so because of its legacy as a tool of political suppression, and its clear link to other grave human rights violations like torture.  Amidst South Korea’s thriving democracy and powerful economy, the death penalty is nothing but an unused relic of an ugly past.