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Korean criminal pardon fails to tackle problems
By Anna Fifield in Seoul - August 13 2005 00:46

In South Korea, committing adultery or breaking a promise to marry someone can land the transgressor in the dock. By the same token, there is a good chance that anyone who breaches foreign currency controls or becomes involved in a contractual dispute will end up with a criminal conviction.

South Korea may have a developed economy, an elected government and sophisticated television phones, but its justice system remains stuck in the past.

On Monday, the day Koreans celebrate the 60th anniversary of liberation from Japan, President Roh Moo-hyun will pardon 4.2m criminals. Reprieves will be granted for everything from traffic violations and breaching the national security law which until this year labelled North Korea as the South's main enemy to business and political crimes.

While pardons are routinely granted on Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving), lunar new year and Buddha's birthday, this is the fourth-largest amnesty in the 57-year history of the Korean constitution.

The staggering scale of the amnesties reflects the criminalisation of South Korean society. The judicial system is at the heart of the problem there is no civil code to speak of in South Korea, so every transgression becomes a crime, and lawyers complain about the politicisation of the judiciary and almost universal powers of prosecutors.

"So much of what is a civil matter in the UK or the US is a crime in South Korea. For example if your company goes bankrupt, you are automatically a criminal so failed businessmen arepenalised through the courts," says Brendon Carr, an attorney at Aurora Law Offices in Seoul. "If you harass a competitor you can be prosecuted."

Mr Roh himself was jailed as a pro-democracy campaigner in his early political career and his four immediate predecessors served time. Prominent business people also have convictions in May the president pardoned 31 businessmen convicted of bribery, accounting fraud and other criminal charges, including vice-chairmen at Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motor and the chief executive of Asiana Airlines. The amnesties are designed to restore the businessmen's honour and allow them to get on with expanding the economy.

Appearances are important in South Korea so, despite the large number of "criminals", having a conviction carries a social stigma.

"In order to promote national unity and inject vitality into the economy, we decided to ask for mass amnesty," Park Byung-seok of the governing Uri party said recently.

The main opposition Grand National partycontends the president, struggling with low popularity and a minority government, is trying to buy approval from a large chunk of the voting public.

But lawyers say the problem is not political, but structural. The government must reform the judicial system rather than rely on presidential amnesties to deal with the problem of mounting convictions and to keep in check the powers of public prosecutors, they say.

A National Assembly committee last year found the courts issued search warrants for 99.3 per cent of requests from the public prosecutors, while courts boast about their 99 per cent conviction rate. There is also concern that bank accounts are tracked and conversations bugged without the required legal authority. The fear was exacerbated by the recent "Samsung-gate" scandal, during which the National Intelligence Service admitted it eavesdropped illegally for five years after 1997, when the government ordered it to stop.

Mr Roh has established a presidential committee on judicial reform but it is facing strong resistance from the prosecutors, who have even tried to drum up public opposition to proposed changes to the criminal court system.

Many hope the president will be able to push through reforms.

"South Korean courts are little more than kangaroo courts where judges justrubber-stamp the prosecutor's submissions," said a Seoul lawyer, asking not to be named for fear of upsetting judges.

"It's a sort of assembly-line system of justice, or rather, injustice."

North Korea sets amnesty as outside pressures grow
By Choe Sang-Hun International Herald Tribune - SATURDAY, AUGUST 13, 2005

SEOUL North Korea announced a rare amnesty for prisoners Friday as the Communist state faced mounting international pressure to improve the human rights conditions in its gulags, where North Korean defectors have said starvation, torture and summary executions are rampant.

The move, the first of its kind in more than three years, appeared partly in- tended to improve the international image of the totalitarian regime while North Korea is engaged in crucial nuclear talks that could determine its long-term survival, experts said.

In a statement from the North's official press agency, KCNA, the country's Supreme People's Assembly, said it would grant "a great amnesty" to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean Peninsula's liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.

Without elaborating on the scale of the latest amnesty, KCNA said that the government would help "ensure those who are to be set free on pardon settle down in their work." An estimated 200,000 people languish in prison camps in North Korea, according to human rights groups.

North Korea occasionally marks important national anniversaries by freeing inmates, analysts with the South Korean government said. In 2002, the North pardoned an unspecified number of people from labor camps to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of the country's first leader, Kim Il Sung.

"They use an amnesty as an occasion to demonstrate the leader's generosity and exhort people to rally around the leader," said a North Korea analyst with the South Korean government's Unification Ministry, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity.

"This time, however, it was also likely that the North considered the amnesty a way to mitigate international calls for improved human rights."

Six-party talks in Beijing earlier this month focused on persuading North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programs. The talks adjourned Sunday and are scheduled to resume during the week of Aug. 29.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon of South Korea met his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, in Beijing to discuss ways of ending the crisis. Ban is also scheduled to meet the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in Washington for similar talks.

South Korea attempted Friday to play down a rift with the United States over whether North Korea should be allowed to keep a civilian nuclear program. Washington objects to such a program.

In the six-party talks, the United States expressed a willingness to discuss normalizing ties with North Korea. The North considers ties with Washington crucial to reviving its economy through trade and cheap loans from international organizations.

But U.S. officials have said that full normalization must be preceded by improvements in North Korea's human rights record.

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