I n December 2008, a 57-year-old man kidnapped an eight-year-old girl on her way to school in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, after which he proceeded to viciously rape her in a church restroom. The child, known only under the fictitious name Kim Na-young, was left with permanent internal and psychological damage. The criminal, notorious child rapist Cho Doosoon, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. While he had originally been given a life sentence, the judge lessened his sentence after declaring that Cho had not been of sound mind because he had been under the influence of alcohol.
The Cho Doo-soon case became a source of disgust and horror embedded in Korean society. As Cho’s release date approaches 12 years later, there has been public outcry for the Korean government to protect its citizens. Although the government asserts that people are safe, many remain dubious, facilitating debates about how Korea should move forward with such atrocious criminals in the future.
Cho Doo-soon’s Release: Worries on the Rise
Cho Doo-soon’s release has been set for December 13, 2020. He will return to his home in Ansan and live less than 1km away from Na-young and her family as well as be given freedom of movement. The Korean Ministry of Justice has reassured the public that Cho will be strictly monitored through an electronic ankle monitor, 24-hour surveillance from an intermodal container, and random visits from a probation officer. Furthermore, he will be put under alcohol restrictions, required to take sexual education courses, and banned from locations frequented by children, such as schools, playgrounds, and child protection facilities. Cho himself has released a statement saying, “I am sorry for my crimes, and if I am released, I will live the rest of my life quietly without causing controversy.”
Most have looked upon Cho’s apology with scorn and disbelief. Despite the government’s announcements, many deem these measures inadequate. Mrs. Lee, a resident of Ansan and a mother of two elementary school children, confessed, “It is not ourselves that we are worried about. We are more scared for our vulnerable children.” Similarly, employees of the Ansan YMCA, Yoon Seung-cheol, Oh Ji-hyun, Na Hyun, and Pi Yoon-hee, stated, “Everyone is nervous, especially those who live near where Cho Doo-soon will be released. The city has announced plans to increase CCTVs and set up high-quality LED streetlights, but this has done little to comfort Ansan residents.”
The mere fact that Cho Doo-soon will be free in society is a topic of deep distaste for many Koreans as well. Dr. David Tizzard, Assistant Professor at Seoul Women’s University, explained, “The public reaction to Cho Doo-soon is both palpable and understandable. It is visceral disgust and disbelief at how someone could commit such heinous crimes. The name itself is enough to make many physically repulsed. In that sense, we learn that from a sociological and psychological perspective, Cho has become more than an individual. He is a symbol. He stands for more than just his individual actions but also the entire possibility of everything that is evil.”
Additionally, there has been criticism that the so-called protective measures put forth by the government are flawed. In 2019, there were 55 reported cases of sexual offenses whilst the offender was wearing an electronic ankle monitor, and in the earlier half of 2020, there were approximately 30 cases. Likewise, there have been reports of former criminals with ankle monitors who have even fled the country. Such failures to contain perpetrators have only heightened people’s concerns.
Preventing a “Second Cho Doo-soon”: A Protective Supervision Act
In response to the controversy surrounding the Cho Doo-soon case, there have been attempts to prevent a second Cho Doo-soon. In 2019, the “Cho Doosoon Law” was created. Under this law, one-to-one officer surveillance was made possible along with extending the time a released criminal would wear an ankle monitor. Nevertheless, because Cho had been sentenced before the passing of this law, it is inapplicable to him. Such irony has led to questions of how Cho, the law’s very motivation, is exempt from its requirements.
This has not been the first time in which public trust in the justice system has faltered. Earlier this year, people were horrified by the Nth Room case, which exposed the disturbing frequency of digital sex crimes unfolding in our everyday lives. In 2019 alone, 25,858 arrests were made for sex crimes. However, despite these growing—and disturbing—numbers, the justice system has been accused of being far too lax and outdated when dealing with sex criminals.
These shortcomings have led to cries for a Protective Supervision Act. Initially introduced in September 2014, the Act failed to be passed following backlash claiming that its rigid surveillance and restrictions violated human rights. However, with Cho’s release, it has gained traction again. Under the Act, criminals who still pose a threat to society, such as sex offenders and murderers, would be quarantined from society by being placed in special facilities and kept under constant surveillance. This would be a drastic transformation from current measures, which still permit freedom of movement.
Protection in Other Countries: Does Korea Need Stricter Laws?
Compared to other countries, Korea’s protective laws appear much more lenient. As of now, there is only a Probation Law that focuses on “educating” former criminals through community service programs. While the Ministry of Justice claims that the Probation Law is more than efficient by both protecting Cho’s human rights and defending the wellbeing of citizens, it is simply not enough to satisfy the public.
In contrast, other countries have much harsher laws. For instance, Germany places former sex offenders in separated facilities after their release. The United States sentences child sex offenders who have committed at least two offenses to life imprisonment. Also, Canada sentences sex offenders to life in prison if they show no signs of rehabilitation even after undergoing chemical castration. Compared to these laws, Korea’s current system seems to be too forgiving and fails to provide the justice and safety victims and society deserve. This has also prompted more backing for the Protective Supervision Act.
Debates Surrounding Protective Laws
Despite demands for refined legal measures, some argue against their application. They assert that while Cho was guilty of his crimes, he has already served his sentence; enforcing more legal restrictions would violate his human rights.
On the other hand, people have criticized clemency towards former criminals. They demand that stricter laws be put in place to protect society regardless of when the law was made. The Ansan YMCA emphasized that a Protective Supervision Act is necessary for such purposes: “A Protective Supervision Act will allow released criminals to be separated in another facility. For sex offenders, they will be put through sexual education. We believe that this is a good method to protect us and prevent future crimes.” Between the issue of human rights and the welfare of society, it is evident that Korea must overcome this obstacle and find a balance between the two.
However, for such legal measurements to take effect in the first place, Dr. Tizzard noted that changes must also be made within the court system. “I believe the Korean court system has to regain the trust of the population,” he stated. “It will do this not by reacting emotionally to decisions and following public will, but by being principled and applying just laws fairly and equally to all citizens. This is what a modern and prosperous democracy requires and it’s what the people of Korea deserve.” As of now, the court has shown patterns of reacting to various cases based on the public’s reaction, not because the crime itself was heinous. For protective legal changes to truly take effect, the court must show reliability and consistency towards all, not just to whoever makes headlines.
Hopes for a Better Future
The arguments surrounding protective laws bring to light the complexities and faults of the Korean legal system when protecting society from former criminals who remain a source of controversy and danger. Beyond legal measures, it is also essential to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. The Ansan YMCA proposed sexual education for adults, explaining that sex crimes are still prevalent despite educating minors. Furthermore, they have expressed hopes for a country where the government and people work together. “The government and citizens must communicate with one another. Instead of making one decision for the entire country, there needs to be more focus on the unique needs of each community.”
As for Cho Doo-soon, Dr. Tizzard suggested that it is best to help the country move forward from the pain. By improving Korean laws and encouraging active communication between the government and communities, we can hope for proper justice and protection to be delivered to all.