The South Korean legal system is a mixed legal system combining European civil law, Anglo-American law, and Chinese classical thought. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Disputes have traditionally been settled on an informal bases through mediation between families or village elders. Even though South Korea has a modern legal system, these customs still endure. Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Formal control mechanisms have replaced the informal social controls. In the past, Koreans were reluctant to take their grievances to the courts and even took offense at the idea, but nowadays they are not so averse to the legal process. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

The jury system was introduced in January 2008 but judges are not bound by juries’ verdicts or opinions. Sound video recording were introduced at the same time. They can be used at the prosecutors discretion but are not a legal obligation. Wiretapping is allowed but sting operations and plea bargaining are not. Trials have traditionally been short.Harsh interrogation methods have traditionally been used to induce confessions. In the 2000s, the South Korean police solved more than 82 percent of all crimes, compared to 23 percent for Japanese police.

Constitutional provisions that call for the presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, freedom from double jeopardy, the right to speedy trial, and the right of appeal generally are observed.

Development of South Korea’s Criminal Code

Throughout Korea's history, the assimilation of foreign laws has taken place in waves. Korea assimilated the codes of the Chinese Qin, Wei, and Tang dynasties in the early Three Kingdoms period, the codes of the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties in the Koryo period (918-1392), the Ming Code in the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) period, Western civil law at the close of the Choson Dynasty and during the Japanese occupation, and both Continental Law and Anglo-American law after liberation in 1945. The Choson Dynasty also produced numerous codifications of Korean law and created new laws as necessary to deal with economic, social, and other public policy issues. Confucian values exerted strong influence on Korea's traditional law. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

With the end of the Choson Dynasty in 1910, decisive changes occurred in Korean law. Traditional Korean institutions were suddenly replaced. Reform measures, characterized by the introduction of Western institutions, began with the Kabo Reforms (1894-95) forced on Korea by Japan and modeled on the Japanese reforms of the Meiji Restoration (1868). These hasty reforms produced many laws translated from Japanese codes, which in turn had their origins in Roman and Germanic laws. The imposition of institutions by the Japanese and their post-1910 use for repressive colonial control constituted a sharp break with the Korean past.*

The Westernized legal system's key features included its origin in the European civil law tradition; prominent roles for legal scholars, university professors, and legislators, rather than judges; codified law rather than precedent as the major source of law; and an inquisitorial rather than adversarial court procedure. In other respects, however, Japanese colonial rule continued several features of the traditional Korean legal order. Under Japanese colonial rule, for example, there was no constitutional law, no guarantee of rights, and no judicial review of the exercise of political power. The legal system of Korea under Japanese rule was composed essentially of rules, duties, and obligations. Further, there was little institutional or procedural separation of powers. The Japanese governor general had even greater executive and legislative power than traditional Korean kings and ruled through a large, efficient, and modern bureaucracy.*

After independence, revulsion over the Japanese occupation motivated Korean officials to devise a new codification designed to replace all Japanese laws, decrees, and orders, as well as the regulations and decrees of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) with Korean codes. The process took ten years. Eventually, the Criminal Code (1953), the Code of Criminal Procedure (1954), the Civil Code (1958), the Civil Procedure Law (1960), and the Commercial Code (1962), as well as other codes — deliberately distinguished from previous Japanese codes — were adopted. In most substantive areas, however, South Korean law retained the most fundamental principles and procedures of continental jurisprudence as originally received through Japan.*

The Code of Criminal Procedure (1954) governed most aspects of the enforcement of criminal justice. The code retained the basic characteristics of the European continental legal system and had some features of Anglo-American law. Among the features adapted from the United States legal system were a requirement for judicial warrants; modification of preliminary examination; strengthening of the system of state-appointed counsel; rejection of hearsay evidence as a matter of rule; and a requirement for corroborating evidence obtained in confessions.*

The first exclusionary ruling on a confession in a South Korean court based on the constitutional guarantee of the right to legal counsel occurred in late 1989. Law enforcement and security agency officials, however, did not consider themselves compelled to adhere to legal precedents or court rulings when subsequently investigating other cases. Police and prosecutors, especially in political or espionage cases, still limited the frequency and length of defendants' meetings with counsel, except when taking written statements. Legislative action was needed for the South Korean system to proceed beyond court redress of specific violations in specific cases to the establishment of general guidelines.*

Judicial Branch of the South Korean Government

The judicial, executive and legislative branches are the three main branches of government in South Korea. At the top of the judicial branch are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 13 justices. The Constitutional Court has a court head and eight justices. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in all cases, including courts-martial; except for death sentences, however, military trials under extraordinary martial law may not be appealed. The Constitutional Court was set up to hear constitutional cases.

The Supreme Court chief justice is appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. Other justices are appointed by the president upon the recommendation of the chief justice and consent of the National Assembly. The chief justice, in consultation with the other justices of the court, appoints lower court justices. The chief justice and other justices serve six-year nonrenewable terms. Constitutional Court justices are appointed: three by the president, three by the National Assembly, and three by the Supreme Court chief justice. The Constitutional Court head serves until retirement at age 70, while other Constitutional Court justices serve six-year renewable terms with mandatory retirement at age 65

Supreme Court justices served six-year terms, giving them a measure of independence from the president, whose single term was only five years (lower-level judges served ten-year terms.) All other judges were appointed by the Conference of Supreme Court Justices and the chief justice. This process reverses the more centralized appointment process that had been in place since the yusin system of 1972, in which the chief justice (under the direction of the president, in practice) appointed lower court judges. All but the chief justice may be reappointed. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The judicial branch is an independent branch and over years has become increasingly willing to exercise its independence. In 2004 the Supreme Court handed down a controversial ruling quashing President Roh’s plan to relocate the national capital from Seoul to a new city in South Ch’ungch’ong Province. Although judges do not receive lifetime appointments, they cannot be fired for political reasons. A number of provisions of the 1987 Constitution were intended to improve judicial independence, which was long held, even within the judiciary itself, to be inadequate. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005; Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Historically, the executive branch exercised great influence on judicial decisions. Even in 1989, soon after government reforms were implemented, there were indications of increased judicial independence. In a number of cases, the Constitution Court found that the government had violated the constitutional rights of individuals. Moreover, the Supreme Court invalidated the results of the elections for two National Assembly seats, citing election law violations by victorious ruling party candidates. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Functions of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court in South Korea

Both defendants and prosecutors can appeal first to the district appellate court and then to the Supreme Court. Constitutional challenges are made to the Constitutional Court. Since 1988, constitutional challenges have gone to the Constitutional Court. The administration of justice was the function of the courts as established under the Constitution and the much-amended Court Organization Law of 1949. A number of provisions of the 1987 Constitution were intended to improve judicial independence, which was long held, even within the judiciary itself, to be inadequate. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Constitution divides responsibility for constitutional review of laws and administrative regulations between the Supreme Court and the Constitution Court. The Supreme Court reviews only regulations, decrees, and other enactments issued by the various ministries of other government agencies. The constitutionality or legality of the regulation to be reviewed must be at issue in an ongoing trial. The Constitution Court has much broader powers. It decides on the constitutionality of laws enacted by the National Assembly when requested by a court to aid in the resolution of a trial, or in response to a constitutional petition, which may be brought by any person who has exhausted available legal remedies. The Constitution Court also has exclusive power to rule on the dissolution of political parties and impeachment of the president, cabinet members, and other high officials. All nine members of the Constitution Court must be qualified to be judges. The president, National Assembly, and chief justice each select three members of the court's nine-member panel.*

The Constitution Court began operation in late 1988. Unlike its predecessors, which since the early 1960s had made only three rulings, the new body gave rulings in 400 of the more than 500 cases considered during its first year. Most of the cases heard were constitutional petitions. In a series of major decisions, the court declared unconstitutional a law prohibiting creditors from suing the government, directed the National Assembly to revise a portion of the National Assembly Law requiring independent candidates to pay twice the deposit of partyaffiliated candidates, declared the Act Concerning Protection of Society unconstitutional, and upheld the constitutionality of a law prohibiting third-party involvement in labor disputes.*

Laws and the Death Penalty in South Korea

South Korea has laws on its books against adultery and rumor mongering. People accused by their spouses of adultery used to be thrown in jail and interrogated after charges are brought against them. A saleswoman was sentenced to four months in jail for spreading rumor that her boss was divorced.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: Laws concerning detention are often vague — in particular, the National Security Law, which authorizes the detention of South Koreans who may be engaged in espionage or otherwise supportive of North Korea. Because South Korean citizenship is based on parentage instead of birthplace, there are many nonethnic Koreans who face extreme difficulties in procuring employment and are banned from civil service work. Rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment are also punished leniently and many grassroots organizations have been formed to promote the legitimacy of these issues. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

South Korea along with Japan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan have the death penalty. Nations with the most executions in 1995 according to Amnesty International were: 1) China (2,190); 2) Saudi Arabia (192); 3) Nigeria (95); 4) the U.S. (56); 5) Singapore (50); 6) Iran (47); 7) Yemen (41), 8) Russia (28); 9) South Korea (19); 10) Taiwan (16); 11) Jordan (12); 12) Vietnam (10). South Korea last carried out executions in December 1997, when 23 people were hanged, according to the justice ministry.

Legal Rights and Appeals in South Korea

The South Korean constitution provides for a presumption of innocence, protection from self-incrimination, the right to a speedy trial, protection from double jeopardy, and other procedural due process safeguards. Habeas corpus, a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention, was strengthened in the 2007 Revision of the Korean Criminal Procedure Code. . In South Korea, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Under South Korean law, you may be arrested and detained when the investigating authorities believe there is sufficient evidence against you to justify detention and/or criminal charges. You can be detained from the time of arrest until a final verdict is issued in your case. You should consult your lawyer to learn how long you may be detained. [Source: Canadian government, 2016]

Once indicted, the accused had the right to be released on bail. Exceptions could be made if the offense were punishable by death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment over ten years; if the defendant were a recidivist; if there were suspicion that the defendant would destroy evidence; or if there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the defendant would flee; or if the residence of the defendant were unknown. In 1989 bail was granted in a National Security Act case for the first time. The constitutional right to representation by an attorney was not interpreted as applying to the investigation and interrogation phases. In National Security Act cases, access to counsel was regularly denied during the investigation phase. In 1989 lawyers sought court orders granting access, but neither the ANSP nor the Prosecutor General's Office felt compelled to comply when the National Security Act was involved. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Both defendants and prosecutors can appeal first to the district appellate court and then to the Supreme Court. Constitutional challenges are made to the Constitutional Court. In cases where the court has granted a detention warrant, you can object to your arrest or detention by filing a motion for objection to detention. This motion typically addresses the legality of an arrest and whether due process and other formal requirements have been sufficiently met. The motion has to be initiated by you, and a different judge generally presides over the procedure. You should consult your lawyer if you are considering filing such a motion. [Source: Canadian government, 2016]

Criminal Procedure and Penal Administration in South Korea

In the absence of martial law or emergency decrees, both of which historically had been exercised by the government and provisions for which remained in the 1987 Constitution, criminal procedure in other than political cases followed a set format. Both public prosecutors and the police were authorized to conduct investigations of criminal acts. Public prosecutors were under the direction and supervision of the Office of the Supreme Prosecutor General; the supreme prosecutor general was appointed by the president. In 1990 there were four branches of the Office of the High Prosecutor General and fourteen district offices. Theoretically, police authority to investigate criminal acts was subordinate to the direction and review of the prosecutors. Also, the arrest of a suspect required a judicial warrant except in cases of flagrante delicto or when it was believed that the suspect would flee or commit the act again. The request for a warrant could be made only by the prosecutor. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Penal administration was controlled and supervised by the Ministry of Justice. There were four detention facilities (for unconvicted detainees), twenty-seven correctional institutions, ten juvenile training institutes, and four juvenile classification homes. Conditions in correctional institutions were austere and particularly harsh in winter. Discipline was strict. Prisoners who broke rules or protested conditions sometimes were physically abused. Under normal circumstances, however, convicts were not physically punished. Most accusations of mistreatment involved persons detained or awaiting trial in detention facilities, rather than those who were already convicted and serving their sentences in prison. Visitation was strictly limited to legal counsel and immediate families. Mail was subject to monitoring and occasional censorship. There was no significant difference in the treatment of prisoners on the basis of wealth, social class, race, or sex. The treatment of political prisoners could be better or worse than that of regular prisoners. On some occasions, special provisions were allowed for political prisoners, and as late as 1989 it also was alleged by human rights activists that political prisoners sometimes were subjected to sleep deprivation and psychological pressure. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

There were a number of probationary devices that permitted police to supervise suspected or convicted criminals, including deferral of prosecution and suspension of sentence. These measures increased judicial flexibility and were often used to show clemency. Probationary devices also had frequently been used to ensure that released political offenders behaved in a manner acceptable to the government. Criminals who showed repentance regularly were freed in amnesties, often linked to holidays. Amnesty often was declared to showcase the beneficence of the state in forgiving criminals.*

Miranda Rights and Reforms of Interrogation Procedures in South Korea

Miranda rights refers to the legal rights of an arrested person to have an attorney and to refuse to answer questions — the right to remain silent. The 2007 Revision of the Korean Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s and early 2000s bolstered these rights in South Korea.

Kuk Cho wrote in the Journal of Korean Law: First, in 1992, the Supreme Court excluded a criminal defendant’s confession by adopting the rationale of the U.S. Miranda rule and applying it to statements elicited without informing of the right to silence in interrogation. Notably, the CPC did not have an explicit provision about such exclusion at the time. In two National Security Act violation cases in the 1990s, the Supreme Court held that the defendants’ self-incriminating statements were illegally obtained since they violated their right to counsel and, thus, were excluded. Third, in a decision on November 11, 2003 involving a purported National Security Act violation by Professor Song Doo Yul, an allegedly pro-North, left-wing Korean-German dissident who was arrested and detained when he visited Seoul, the Supreme Court recognized the right to have counsel during interrogation as a constitutional right of suspects. [Source: Kuk Cho, Journal of Korean Law, December 2008]

Article 244-3 of the CPC provides the Miranda rule. Prior to interrogation, investigative authorities should inform a suspect that (1) a suspect can choose not to make any statements or refuse to respond to specific questions; (2) no disadvantage shall be given to a suspect even if he or she chooses not to make a statement; (3) anything a suspect says after waiving the right to silence may be used as incriminatory evidence against the suspect in court; (4) a suspect has a right to counsel including a right to have the counsel present during interrogation. Article 243-2 of the CPC provides the right to counsel during interrogation, but it may be restricted when there is “justifiable cause. The extent of “justifiable cause” will be decided based on the 2003 Supreme Court decision in the Professor Song Doo Yul case.

The reforms also encouraged the use of tape recording of interrogation “Before the 2007 revision of the CPC, it contained no provision about the evidentiary power of videotapes recorded during interrogation. Formerly, such videotapes were rarely used in practice by investigative authorities. Things have changed as nowadays videotaping is recognized by law enforcement authorities to be quite useful in preventing disputes over the admissibility and accuracy of defendants’ statements during interrogation.”

The 2007 revision of the CPC also mandates investigative authorities to record the arrival time of a suspect, the time an investigation began and ended, and other matters necessary to supervise the investigation process. These other matters may include specific times of recess, the time a suspect ate a meal, and the time a suspect made a document by his or her own writing. The investigative authorities are required to orally read such records for the suspect or have the suspect read them. This new system is designed to make the investigation process more transparent.

After Arrest in South Korea

After an arrest, the suspect has to be transferred to the public prosecutor within ten days and indicted within ten days of the prosecutor's gaining custody. The judge is permitted to extend detention another ten days', the suspect could request court review of the legality of detention. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Following the arrest, the investigating authorities determine whether a crime has occurred, whether there are grounds to believe that you committed the crime, and make a recommendation. Based on that recommendation, the prosecutors will determine whether or not to proceed with the case. The prosecutors will also determine if you should remain in detention while the investigation continues. If you are to be detained further, the prosecutors will request a detention warrant (a judicial authorization that you be detained) from the Court. They must do so within 48 hours of your arrest; otherwise, you must be released. During the court hearing over the detention warrant, a court-appointed public defender will be provided for you if you do not have your own private lawyer. If the court grants the warrant, you will remain in police custody and will later be transferred to a detention centre. [Source: Canadian government, 2016]

In order to prevent long-term detention during the investigative stage of the case, South Korean criminal law limits the police investigation period to 10 days. Once the police have submitted the file and their recommendation to the prosecution, the law allows for another 10 days for the prosecution to review the case. The prosecution can seek an extension of an additional 10 days, if necessary. In the event the prosecution fails to issue an indictment (a formal accusation of a crime) during this period, you must be released from detention. You should proactively monitor the progress of your case and discuss any concern with your lawyer.

Detained Foreigners in South Korea

Arrested foreigners in South Korea are usually kept in detention throughout the investigation and trial process and bail is not commonly granted; you may be initially held without being officially charged for up to 48 hours; and, if you are found guilty of an offence, you will generally be deported after your sentence has been carried out. Your choice of legal representation in South Korea can be critically important and should be made with care. Consular officials can provide a list of lawyers who have expertise in your particular type of case. [Source: Canadian government, 2016]

An arrest can be made by the Korean National Police Agency, a prosecutors’ office, or other agencies of the South Korean government such as the Korea Customs Office or the Korea Immigration Office, as well as any other special agent who has been vested under the law with the authority to make an arrest. Korean authorities may confiscate your travel documents, such as your passport, while you are under investigation or after arrest while you are in custody or detention. Please inform a Canadian consular official if this happens to you.

South Korean criminal law is applicable to both South Korean citizens and foreigners who commit crimes within the territory of South Korea. Since foreigners usually do not have a permanent residence in South Korea, investigative authorities frequently keep them in detention or under arrest throughout the investigation and trial process to prevent their departure from the country, particularly in cases involving felonies or serious crimes for which the prosecutors anticipate a prison sentence. Permanent residents in South Korea may not be detained pending investigation, as tampering with evidenceand flight from prosecution are less likely.

If you do not understand Korean, you are entitled to assistance from an interpreter certified by the South Korean government during interrogation by the authorities. You are also entitled to an oral translation of any written statement you may be required to sign. If an interpreter has not yet been appointed, you should request one.The skills of Korean-English interpreters can vary greatly, and skilled Korean-French interpreters are not as easily available.

Under South Korean law, you do not have to testify or answer questions that could be incriminating. You should be read your rights, such as the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer, prior to or during an arrest. The Korea Immigration Office may assume authority over a foreigner convicted of breaking South Korean law. If you are released on probation, the Korea Immigration Office may detain you and will usually deport foreigners convicted of a felony or serious crime.You should ask your lawyer to explain what deportation options may apply to your circumstances.

Frustration with the South Korean Justice System

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In a 2012 “survey of 1,100 South Koreans by Good Law, a civil watchdog group that monitors legal professionals, found that 77 percent of respondents had lost faith in the judiciary. More than 80 percent said the success of "Unbowed" is directly related to the public's mistrust of judges. A series of public forums has followed, including one hosted by Seoul's Central District Court that was meant to clear the air between judges and citizens. Instead, several people in the packed auditorium tried to rush the stage. "Thugs! Robbers!" one woman shouted. Another called out, "Criminals!" The moderator tried to calm the crowd: "It seems that all these things that have built up inside you are coming out today." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2012]

Seoul National University law professor Cho Guk, who was at the session, said public resentment has been fueled by judicial rulings that seem to favor the privileged. As an example, he pointed to a Seoul appeals court's suspension of an embezzlement conviction against Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo. The court cited what it said was Chung's crucial role in helping the South Korean economy rebound from the Asian financial crisis, Cho said. "People see how a corporate CEO who embezzles millions receives a suspended sentence while a normal businessman gets sent to prison for stealing a fraction of that. Judges need to make more effort at issuing fairer judgments," Cho told the gathering.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: In South Korea “a mistrust of the judiciary is a longstanding phenomenon. The depth of anti-judiciary sentiment is such that when a quixotic pig farmer angry over a court ruling threw a firebomb at the car of the current chief justice, Kim Myeong-su, the November incident received outsize news and social media coverage. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 11, 2019]

“South Koreans have long been frustrated with the judiciary, especially over judges’ repeated soft-glove treatment of top executives convicted of white-color crimes in chaebol, or family-run business conglomerates like Samsung that dominate their country’s economy. Over the years, many chaebol executives have been paraded into courts on bribery and other charges. But they have usually walked away with light sentences (most of them suspended), free to manage their businesses. That led to a common South Korean saying: “With money, not guilty. With no money, guilty.”“

Supreme Court Judge Accused on Conspiracy in South Korea

In 2019, in a unprecedented case, Yang Sung-tae, former chief justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court, was accused of abuse of power, conspiracy to delaying court cases and granting political favors. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Prosecutors are investigating whether Mr. Yang’s Supreme Court used trials as political leverage to win favors from Ms. Park’s government, such as support for creating a new appeals court and posting more judges to South Korea’s overseas diplomatic missions. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 11, 2019]

“Mr. Yang is accused of meeting with lawyers from South Korea’s biggest law firm, Kim & Chang, which represented Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi, and warning other Supreme Court justices of the potential diplomatic fallout of a verdict against Japanese firms. “In October, prosecutors arrested a former senior official of the National Court Administration, an arm of the Supreme Court, and named Mr. Yang as a co-conspirator. The powerful office plays a key role in deciding judges’ job postings and promotions, and Mr. Yang is also accused of using it to influence lower-court rulings and discriminate against judges deemed unfriendly to his leadership and Ms. Park’s government.

“Since last summer, prosecutors have raided the National Court Administration and questioned two former Supreme Court justices. They planned to summon Mr. Yang a couple more times before deciding whether to formally indict him on charges of abuse of power. The monthslong investigation has left the judiciary deeply divided. Reform-minded judges had called for an investigation even before Ms. Park was ousted, while others derided the investigation as politically motivated.

Crossbow Incident and Movie and South Korean Frustration with Its Justice System

A fired professor who went to prison for the attempted murder of a judge become a hero to some South Koreans and face for frustration with the South Korean justice system. A 2012 movie --- "Unbowed ", which told his story — drew a fair amount of attention in South Korea. Reporting from Seoul John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It began when an out-of work math professor who had just lost a decision in civil court confronted the judge with a crossbow. Now, five years later, the entire South Korean judiciary system is under siege, and the professor, free after serving time in prison for attempted murder, has become an underground hero of sorts. Prosecutors called Kim Myung-ho a terrorist during his 2007 criminal trial, in which he contended that he had meant only to scare Judge Park Hong-woo. The judge had just ruled against him in a wrongful-termination lawsuit and was returning to his apartment when the attack took place. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2012]

“But for some, Kim is a Korean version of the Michael Douglas character in the 1993 film "Falling Down," an average citizen who became unhinged by his anger at society. That perspective has been enhanced by a popular new film based on the case. "Unbowed" has become a surprise box office hit, the third-highest-grossing film this year in South Korea. Legal experts say it has attracted 3.3 million moviegoers by tapping into long-brewing public resentment toward judges, who are viewed by many here as aloof and biased in favor of the nation's elite.

“The film's popularity has unleashed a flurry of newspaper articles with headlines such as "Hard time for judges: Would humble gestures help?" It has also caused concern among court officials in Seoul that it could encourage further violence against judges. "Like we see in the movie 'Unbowed,' the judges have this haughty image in the eye of the public: 'I'm an elite and the only one who knows the truth.'" "Unbowed" screenwriter Han Hyun-keun, who met with Kim in prison, calls him "an honest man who reached his breaking point."

“Kim was fired after pointing out a question on his university's entrance exam that he said was unfair. A dispute ensued and the school fired him, saying he had criticized colleagues who wrote the exam. "It was wrong for him to take the crossbow to the judge's house," Han said. "But the central facet of the movie isn't about that action; it's about the system that might lead him to such an act. South Korea is improving. But judges still have incredible power."

“Kim, 55, said in a recent interview that the movie accurately portrays his battle with the South Korean justice system. "It's realistic; that's why people want to see it," he said. "It portrays my war with the courts." After four years in prison, Kim is apparently unrepentant. "Judges believe they are above the law," he said as he sat in a Seoul coffeehouse. "They're unchallenged, like gangsters, fearing no one. I thought this judge needed to feel fear." Kim had represented himself in Park's courtroom for six months, watching his case to get his job back crumble under what he believed were nonsensical rulings. Well before the verdict, the small, resolute instructor staged one-man protests outside the courthouse and wrote letters of complaint to the Supreme Court. He also sought less direct emotional outlets for his anger. He considered breaking dishes, he said, but instead bought a US$400 crossbow to shoot on weekends.

“He decided to confront Park at home the night the judge issued his final decision. Kim recalls waiting in the half-shadows of an apartment building stairwell, crossbow in hand. When Park arrived, a fight ensued and, according to prosecutors, Park was wounded by a projectile fired from the crossbow. I was very angry," Kim recalled. "I didn't have a clear mind, but I knew that I was talking to a wall in court. I wanted to confront him and ask: 'Why did you do this? Why didn't you observe the law?'" Bystanders quickly detained Kim. At trial, the prosecution produced a bloody shirt and undergarments they said belonged to the judge, saying that Park had been injured during the scuffle. The defense attorney argued that the blood was fabricated and that the stains didn't match up with the judge's supposed stomach wound, Kim said.

“Thanks to the movie, Kim is getting a second public hearing. A Korean Herald feature says, "The film reignited the long-held public suspicion that the crossbow trial might have been biased and faulty." The judge has refused to speak publicly about the movie. During Kim's criminal trial, Park asked the court to show leniency to the professor, citing his emotional state at the time of the attack. "I hope such an incident will never happen again to anyone," Park told the court. "But there is a saying, 'Hate the crime, but don't hate the man.'"

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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