"I’m going out hunting,” messages the 17-year-old. Then an eight-year-old child is found dismembered on the roof of her home. “Give me a piece of the corpse as a present,” says the 19-year-old accomplice. Despite what it seems like, this is not a scene from a horror or thriller movie. This is one of the most notorious teenage murder cases in Korea that happened in Incheon on March 29. However, the murderer can only be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison according to the current law on juvenile delinquency. This has sparked criticism over the legitimacy of the Juvenile Act, and raises the question; should the Act continue to exist?
Criminal offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 are subject to more lenient sentencing by the Juvenile Act. Those over 14 and under 18 are punishable by a maximum of 20 years of imprisonment while minors under 14 do not face criminal trials at all. Children under 10 are not subject to any legal punishment. Why does the law protect minors when they are legally permitted to obtain driver’s licenses from the age of 18? Is it not ironic that 18-year olds are demanding that the state confer to them the right to vote, yet state legislation grants them light sentences when they violate the law? The Juvenile Act, created in 1953, is sorely in need of reevaluation.
Unfortunately, the so-called Incheon Murder Case is not the last of these brutal teenage crimes. The Busan attack in September has shed light on the current Korean bylaws that are not stringent enough to deter criminals. In the case of the Busan assault, three of the perpetrators were over 14 but there was one assailant who was not and hence unable to be legally punished. In light of the ludicrous regulations that grant immunity to those who are clearly guilty, the public is demanding the abolition of the Juvenile Act whilst some question whether there is such a significant difference between 15- and 14-year-olds that the former can be punished while the latter cannot.
In the early 20th century, Germany and Japan revised their criminal laws and decreed that the minimum age in order for one to be held legally accountable for his or her actions be set to 14. Korea most likely emulated their constitutions by setting the threshold of legal accountability to 14. Many have challenged this minimum age as inappropriate, however. Statistically speaking, the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) reported that the percentage of youth offenders who are under 14 continued to increase from 11.75 percent in 2012 to 15.2 percent in 2016.
As juvenile crimes become ever more merciless, there is a growing voice calling for an urgent reevaluation of the existing legal framework. As much as it may seem like it, those who ardently advocate the abolition of the Juvenile Act are not seeking to put youth offenders behind bars indefinitely. All they are asking for is the legislation to take into account the anguish suffered by the victims and their families and for legislators to reassess a flawed legal doctrine to restore justice and to regain the trust of the public.
Voices of those who seek to impose penalties of greater severity on youths who commit crimes are becoming louder than ever before, and for good reason. Teenage criminals should be sentenced according to the degree and gravity of their crime; condoning teens’ wrongdoings may lead them to think that they can get away with violating the law. Lessons should be learnt from the early stages of life, more commonly known as the formative period. There is a well-known Korean proverb that goes, “A habit learned at three cannot be unlearnt until 80.” One can only hope that the men and women that bustle through the halls of the National Assembly take these words to heart.