Human history can be summarized with a single word: conflict. Yet, humans realized that consistent internal or external conflict would lead to the destruction of a society as it is not a productive activity. This realization caused humans to create various systems to minimize internal disputes, and that is what we know as law. Ancient communities were mainly tribal, meaning it was kin-based, and thus the communities’ elders usually settled disputes and their words were law. The concept that a leader’s words were law was accepted in a bigger society of kingdoms, where the king controlled a country. However, this relationship between law and society meant that law could change anytime based on a single individual, and hence the humans soon created a law set in words — what we know as the Code of Hammurabi.
As mentioned before, law and humans are deeply related. If humans fully exert their greed, it is natural that conflict follows. To prevent this, laws were initially created based on society’s moral values in order to guide the people.
Law can be categorized into two types: paternalism and retributivism. The previously mentioned Code of Hammurabi can be classified as retributivism, the belief that a person who has committed crimes has to pay an equal or higher price for their actions. Such a penalty deters members of society from commiting a crime. Hence, the punishments included torture of the human body, a punishment hard to accept for modern citizens of developed nations. On the other hand, paternalism focuses on redemption rather than radical penalty. Thus, laws based on paternalism focus on the education of criminals in order to prevent repeated offences.
The current Korean law can be classified as a system that leans towards paternalism. Korea’s history of atrocious punishments on innocent citizens during military dictatorship (such as those handed out during the People’s Revolutionary Party Incident) has caused the Korean law to be more lenient towards its citizens. Hence, the Korean law consists of leniency such as presumption of innocence and soft penalties like frequent probation. Nonetheless, there are always individuals who abuse such a system.
It is common to hear about Korean chaebols who only receive probation for their crimes. Such repeated partisanship has caused Koreans to distrust the judiciary. The probation of Lee Jae-yong and the denied bench warrants for ex-President Park’s henchmen are some of the many paragons of such cases.
With the increasing rate of barbarous crimes (such as Lee Young-hak’s case or Choi Soon-sil Gate), the public’s opinion is leaning towards retributivism. Its supporters argue that the assailant needs to suffer as much as the victim. Every time I see an inhuman crime on the news, I see that it is no mystery why people support retributivism. Yet the objective of paternalism is to reduce the rate of reoffense, not to free the guilty. Retributivism inflicts harsh penalties even for misdemeanors. This may create discontent towards society and increase the rate of recidivism. Also, it may ruin an individual’s life completely if that individual were to be falsely accused. Paternalism has less risks of such possibilities. In fact, Korea’s public order is considered higher than that of the US, which follows retributivism.
Currently, social media’s development has allowed for the quick transfer of information. This led to the highlighting of cases that may have been considered as minor or unknown. Though social media may be superior to pre-existing media, it lacks responsibility. So-called “fake news” spreads unconfirmed information and brings about chaos. A common example of this would be witch-hunts. The recent #MeToo movement cannot be free from this either. When a celebrity is accused as a sexual assailant, they are tried in the court of public opinion. Despite the raging number of accusations, there are few aggressors verified by law. There are cases in which innocents like actor Do-won Kwak are being accused as assailants. It must be recognized that trials by public opinion deny the existence of law.
If there is a flaw in the law, it can be changed. Democracy accepted the participation of citizens in politics and hence influenced the creation of legislation. Because of this, if there is a fault and people recognize it, they can elect a representative who also believes that the fault exists, run as a candidate, or ask for an amendment. Yet, if people start denying the existing law because of an impulsive urge, then they are also denying the basis of society. Such actions cause chaos within society and lead to further acceptance of illegal actions.
I wish to conclude with the following. Law is the foundation that constitutes society, whether we disregard retributivism or not. If law did not exist, all daily life transactions from buying the groceries to paying for electricity would be impossible. When even such minor actions are treated by law, trials by public opinion, which ignore the law, can adversely affect other laws as well. Hence, I wish to warn those with such thoughts; do not resort to illegal activities to punish illegal acts.