Law and Society in Korea

Law and Society in Korea

Elgar Korean Law series

Edited by Hyunah Yang

The contributors examine societal and historical conditions that are reflected in – or that were shaped by – the law, through a variety of lenses; including law and development, law and politics, colonialism and gender, past wrongdoings, public interest lawyering, and judicial reform. In dismantling the historical specificity of the way in which Korea studies are universally framed, the contributions provide novel views, theories and information about South Korean law and society.

Chapter 10: Transitional justice in Korea: legally coping with past wrongs after democratisation

Kuk Cho

Subjects: asian studies, asian law, law - academic, asian law


For over a decade, Korean society has taken legal steps to rectify past wrongs under the authoritarian-military regime. Part of a global wave of political democratisation after soviet communism’s collapse,1 the nationwide ‘June Struggle’ of 1987 led to the collapse of Korea’s authoritarian-military regime and opened a road toward democratisation. Since then, a number of human rights violation cases have been revealed in Korea (hereinafter Korea or South Korea), and a cleansing campaign has been in operation since the 1993 launch of the ‘Civilian Government’. The Korean public came to see the complete picture of its painful past, and with it came an unavoidable task for the Korean democratic-civilian governments to rectify past wrongs. How to properly achieve ‘transitional justice’ became a serious political and legal issue.2 While liberals, including human rights organisations, supported the realisation of transitional justice, conservatives, in particular politicians with military backgrounds, objected to it. This chapter attempts to review the legislative steps and judicial decisions regarding Korea’s dark past, and to provide a Korean method to deal with past wrongs. Firstly, the chapter reviews the constitutionality of the 1995 Special Act Regarding the May 18 Democratic Movement, enacted to suspend the statute of limitations for punishing crimes committed by military leaders on and around 12 December 1979 and 18 May 1980. Secondly, this chapter proceeds to examine the recent laws excluding the application of the statute of limitations to state crimes against human rights and related issues of retrospective punishment.

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