Sunday, December 25, 2011

Who goes to jail in Korea?

The striking thing about the case of Jeong Bong-ju, a former politician and current host of the wildly popular podcast Naggomsu, is not that he was found guilty or that he was convicted of violating a nebulous law, but that he's actually going to jail. Jeong was convicted this week of spreading false rumours in connection with a scandal that erupted four years ago when current president Lee Myung-bak was a candidate, and sentenced to a year in prison. To put it in American terms, this is a bit like John Hodgman or Wyatt Cenac going to jail for what they said on the Daily Show.

You see, nobody goes to jail in South Korea. You'd have to do something really stupid, over and beyond the obvious things that land you in jail, like steal millions of dollars, rape disabled children put under your charge, order the wholesale massacre of civilians, or intentionally burn down a national landmark. You'd have to do something really, really bad like spread false rumours. Let's do a quick rundown over some of the awful things you can do here that don't earn you any time behind bars, as well as some of the awful things you can do to earn a sentence as harsh as Jeong's.

Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics - convicted of tax evasion for which the prosecution requested a seven-year sentence, given a three-year suspended sentence, which in turn became a pardon by the president, all so that Lee could help promote Korea's bid for the 2018 Olympics (the reason for the pardon is not a joke)

Kim, administrator at the Inhwa School for disabled students - sentenced to a year in jail, identical to Jeong, for the crime of raping six students between the ages of 7-20

Kim, principal at the same school - convicted of the same crime, received a suspended sentence

Chun Doo-hwan, former president - while effectively ruling the country as a general, hundreds of protesters were killed, along with many others over his eight-year dictatorship; for this, Chun received a death sentence that was commuted to, you guessed it, about a year in prison

These are just some of the famous cases, but let's go through the news to find what else you can get away with in this country:

A man received three years for beating his son to death

A man received a two-year suspended sentence for running a gambling website

An actor received a four-year suspended sentence for raping a 17-year-old girl

Six bus drivers received suspended sentences for sexually abusing a disabled, underaged passenger

Two employees of a bank received suspended sentences for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank

As you might be starting to figure out, it takes a very determined man to go to jail, or in this case, a man who displeased the president. I don't doubt that Jeong broke the law, but aside from the politicization of this case that led to his unusually harsh sentence, there's also the fact that there are so many laws in this country that are very vaguely worded. I bet it is impossible to find one person in this country who is not guilty of something. To give one example, that is personally relevant, I display my favourite, from the Korea Immigration Service:

"Foreigners are granted rights to any activities granted by their visa, and may stay as long as their given period of stay. They are not, however, allowed to participate in any political activities except when specifically allowed by law."

The official Korean, for any sticklers out there:

"외국인은 체류자격과 체류기간의 범위 내에서 체류할 수 있으며, 법률이 정하는 경우를 제외하고는 정치활동을 할 수 없습니다."

As I wrote in a question to Ask a Korean, himself no slouch with the law:

"I find that baffling. To me, it seems that it's intended to keep out troublemakers of some sort, especially the sort of professional protesters you get at the G20. My guess, however, would be that the regulation predates the G20.

Leaving aside whether there's any law that makes note of political activities in which a non-citizen may engage, except voting in some elections, doesn't this mean I could be deported for attending a "Dokdo is ours" rally? Supporting comfort women? Tuition fee protests? Writing an op-ed piece? Blogging?"

The response, which I hope he doesn't mind my posting here, seems to confirm the opacity of the law: "I think you just identified a potential law review article. It's an interesting question, but it will take some significant research to answer."


The Korean said...

The prosecution of JBJ was clearly politically motivated. But setting that one aside, there are good reasons for having vague laws and lenient sentencing. The latest "it" book in criminal justice is called The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by late Harvard Law professor Bill Stuntz, who makes a very strong case that vague laws and lenient sentencing leads to significantly less crime. For example, in early 1900s Chicago, more than one-third (!) of murder defendants were acquitted after a jury trial, thanks in part to vague laws. Yet murder rate in early 1900s Chicago is less than half of what it is now.

I can't summarize the entire book in order to explain how this works, but it does work. And in that sense, I actually like Korea's criminal enforcement a lot better than America's -- except for some pockets that could use a little bit of tinkering, like rape laws.

Adeel said...

I generally agree that trying to keep people out of jail is better considering the way that America sends vast numbers of people (1% of all American adults are in jail right now) to jail, with the subsequent result of ruining their lives after they get out. We probably agree that Korea's softer approach is better, with notable exceptions like rape.

I can't really agree with the vagueness I see in the National Security Law (I'm too paranoid to say more) or the immigration regulation (law?) I quoted above. In these cases, at least, the law seems to cast a wider net than it seems to allow people to slip through.