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Death Row D.I.Y.

November 30, 2009

Chung Nam-kyu

On Saturday November 21st convicted Korean serial killer, Chung Nam-kyu, took his own life in his cell whilst awaiting execution on death row. He had been convicted of murdering 13 people and robbing, assaulting and raping a further 20 others. Chung was actually discovered hanging in his cell at the time but died in hospital the next day from injuries related to his suicide attempt. It seems he had fashioned a noose from plastic bags that he had used to form a makeshift rope.

If readers can permit a moment of grim humour here, it should be noted that Chung Nam-kyu is alleged to have killed himself (via hanging) over anxiety surrounding his impending execution. The method of execution employed by the South Korean authorities is hanging.

Owing to a lack of Korean language skill on my part, the seeming lack of interest in Koreans around me, and the scant information in western media, it has proven difficult to unearth more detailed information on this case. The BBC reports that Chung left a note that said simply: “Life is like a cloud”. Precise details concerning his crimes, such as a timeline, the identity of the victims, criminal methodology, etc. are not readily available. What is known is that South Korea has enacted a de facto moratorium on carrying out executions since 1997, the year that saw Kim Dae-jung elected president of the country. Kim himself had been sentenced to death under the regime of President Chun Doo-hwan in 1980 and only escaped after his sentence was commuted to first 20 years imprisonment and finally exile, following intervention by the USA in the matter. Further, The Hankyoreh published a report from September of this year detailing that the South Korea Justice Ministry was preparing to agree to a formal non-application of the death penalty requested by the Council of Europe. In addition, the constitutionality of capital punishment is currently being reviewed in the Constitutional Court at the request of an appeals court and a final report on the matter is expected in December this year. Simply put, despite Chung Nam-kyu allegedly being driven to kill himself out of fear of his impending execution, the very execution itself seemed highly unlikely to occur.

Chung may not have seen it that way, though; as there has been a resurgent interest in the death penalty amongst the Korean public recently following a horrendously violent sex attack on a young child (the girl survived the attack but has been left permanently disabled). The tireless netizens of Korea have been voicing their anger at such crimes and have been demanding tougher action from the government on the nation’s worst offenders, i.e. people like Chun Nam-gyu. Chung, for his part, isn’t even the most grotesque and sensational monster of recent years in Korea. That dubious distinction should probably go to Yu Yung-chul who killed 21 people, mainly prostitutes and rich old men, and who admitted to eating the livers of some of his victims. Yu was apprehended in 2004 and sentenced to death June 2005. When asked to explain his crimes he said “women should not be sluts and the rich should know what they have done”. The 2008 Korean film, Chugyeogja (The Chaser), was loosely based on the exploits of Yu Yung-chul and his crimes in particular had also reignited the debate over capital punishment in Korea.

Although a man hanging himself because he’s worried about the state hanging him seems somewhat bizarre, it appears that Chung Nam-kyu evaded justice in the end as he was able to die on his own terms, at his own hands. His death wasn’t administered as capital punishment but was instead carried out as a suicide at a time of his choosing. It may be small consolation to the families of his victims but it could be argued that Chung at least did Korea a favour as the government no longer has to concern itself with keeping someone like him alive. He has arguably saved Korea some money and muted a potentially controversial debate concerning his own fate and the pursuit of justice against the country’s worst criminals.

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