In the last seven days, prosecutors in South Korea have been seeking the death penalty in two high-profile cases. The first involves an army sergeant charged with the death of a fellow soldier, known as “Yoon,” as a result of bullying. The second case features the captain who abandoned the sinking Sewol ferry on April 16, in which 304 people died.
The last time a capital sentence was handed down was in 2009 for the serial killer Kang Ho-sun. There are 60 inmates currently on death row, although no execution has been carried out since 1997. The sergeant (who has not been named publicly) and the Sewol ferry captain are high-profile cases, and the first to be considered for capital punishment since Kang Ho-sun.
The sergeant was part of a group who repeatedly tortured and bullied Yoon at their post near the North Korean border. Yoon was eating dinner when the deadly assault occurred. The sergeant is alleged to have repeatedly punched and kicked him, causing Yoon to choke on a piece of food.
All adult South Korean men fit for duty must serve in the military service, an institution known for recurring instances of bullying, torture and rape of conscripts. Bullying is prevalent in Korean society in schools, universities, within families, at the workplace or on the internet. While bullying is hardly unique to South Korea, there is little in the way of a support system for victims, and most cases are left unreported.
In Korea, an average of 80 conscripts die every year from suicide or accidents. Yoon’s case, however, is a high-profile incident that led many Koreans to go public with similar experiences and call for tougher punishments. While prosecution seeking the death penalty came as a shock to some, many were relieved that the bullying was being addressed seriously. For many in South Korea, the issue is personal and one they have experienced, which explains the high-profile nature of this case.
As for the Sewol ferry captain, the trial was very heated and the parents of the victims, who were mostly high school students, have been demonstrating near City Hall in Seoul almost every day.
The captain was among the first to be rescued from the sinking ship, after issuing an announcement instructing the passengers to remain in their rooms rather than evacuate. Many believe the disaster could have been prevented, as the ferry sank very near the city of Jindo and land could be seen from the ship at the time of sinking. A series of safety blunders were committed, and the crew reported that they were drinking beer as the ferry sank. A series of other blunders prevented an adequate rescue, and while 172 passengers were saved, 294 lost their lives and 10 are still unaccounted for.
While there has been discussion about abolishing the death penalty in South Korea, there has been a noticeable absence of criticism of the sentences being sought by prosecutors in these two high-profile cases. Even if the sentence is handed down, however, there is a question as to whether the executions will be carried out. South Korea hasn’t had an execution since 1997.