The death penalty is one of the most contentious issues in Korea. In contrast to other Asian countries, the issue of whether the death penalty should be abolished has been actively debated and reviewed at governmental levels and in civil society. It is important to note that it is not just civic organizations that have begun to favor abolition of the death penalty but also state organizations including the National Assembly and the National Human Rights Commission. The Constitutional Court has invalidated some disproportionate provisions in relation to the death penalty. Since President Kim Dae-Jung took office in February 1998, there has been an “unofficial moratorium” on executions.
This article provides an overview of the legal regime governing the death penalty and the ongoing debate on the death penalty in Korea. It begins by briefly reviewing international treaties that call for the abolition of the death penalty, contrasting them with the retentionist trend in most Asian countries. It then reviews the major decisions of the Korean Supreme Court and the Korean Constitutional Court. It also discusses recent moves in the National Assembly and the National Human Rights Commission to abolish the death penalty. It suggests that the Korean death penalty debate has potentially significant implications for its retentionist Asian neighbours grappling with similar issues.