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[Lee Jae-min] Curing Korea’s intoxication problem

A petition was filed with the Blue House with the support of more than 200,000 people, prompting a high ranking Blue House official to appear publicly and issue an official response. This rare national debate relates to courts’ discretionary consideration of intoxication as a mitigating factor in issuing sentences for criminals. The petition aims to amend the Korean Criminal Code to eliminate the intoxication defense from the code entirely and/or amend other special legislations on sex crimes so as to have the court “mandatorily” exclude such a defense in certain sex crimes.

It was April 2010 when those special legislations were enacted or amended in the aftermath of horrendous sex crimes committed in the state of intoxication: Under the newly enacted and amended legislations a presiding judge may disregard the intoxication defense in certain sex crimes.

Now the petition seeks to make the disregard mandatory as well as change the general Criminal Code to reflect the same. The fate of the petition is unclear, but it does show the increasing public concern over the intoxication problem in Korean society. The recent petition was triggered by the imminent release of criminals who had committed unspeakable crimes but whose sentences had been shortened due to the intoxication defense under the law at that time.

In response to increasing social awareness, new bills have also been introduced to the National Assembly. Several of them are now pending. They, too, aim to eliminate the intoxication defense from the Criminal Code or force a judge not to consider the factor at all in applying special legislations. One of the bills even stipulates intoxication as an aggravating factor as opposed to a mitigating one. These bills also reflect the changing social response to the increasing sexual crimes.

Korea’s high consumption rate of alcohol is well known. Violent drinking habits and long working hours are probably two qualities that define Korean workplaces. Drinking ability has sometimes been regarded (wrongly and baselessly) as a sign of good communication skills and leadership. It was not long ago that Korean newspapers used a Chinese four character idiom, meaning “ready to drink kegs of wine,” as a nuanced favorable description of a person appointed to an important government post. Sadly, it is an undeniable fact that Korea has had a positive perspective toward alcohol.

This misplaced generosity has sent the wrong signal, and we are paying the price.

An increasing number of people are victimized by crimes committed by those under the influence of alcohol. The National Police Agency publishes an annual report on crime. In its most recent report for the year 2016, 39.5 percent of homicides (390 of 995) were committed under the influence of alcohol. The rate is 28.9 percent for sexual assault (1,858 of 6,427) and 37.9 percent for indecent sexual acts, such as inappropriate touching (6,068 of 16,016).

So, really, excessive alcohol consumption is one of the major causes of crime in the country. And this is just the reported and sentenced crime statistics. Assuming that many of the confrontations, scuffles and inappropriate acts are not even reported to police, the actual toll must be much higher. Something must be done to keep Korea sober and healthy.

As we enter mid-December, all sorts of year-end parties are ready to fill the streets and alleys. We will watch people stagger down to taxi stands. Some might squat down curbside, waiting for their friends to bring them to a second-round location. Drunkenness swarms over the city.

As the recent petition shows, legal issues and legislative changes will continue to engage experts and lawmakers for a reasonable solution. Setting that aside, a more critical task for all of us is how to change the inexplicably alcohol-generous culture in our society. Thankfully, we see some positive changes recently -- more and more, reckless drinking is met with disapproving eyes at gatherings, workplaces and universities.

But we still have a long way to go. Maybe and hopefully, our December this year will be more sober than previous ones.

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.