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Child kills man with stone, sparking debate over legal immunity of children

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Nov. 20, 2023 - 13:52

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Police officers patrol a street. This photo is not directly related to this story. (Yonhap) Police officers patrol a street. This photo is not directly related to this story. (Yonhap)

A 70-something man was killed Friday by a stone thrown by an elementary school student, touching off a dispute across the country over the South Korean legal clause that bans punishing those under the age of 14.

According to Nowon Police Station in Seoul, the victim was walking in an apartment complex with his wife around 4:30 p.m. when a stone thrown from about 10 stories above struck him. Rescue workers were dispatched to the scene, but the victim died on the spot.

A subsequent police investigation found that two children -- both aged under 10 -- were responsible for the stones thrown below. Officials declined to reveal the content of the children’s statements.

The Criminal Act defines anyone under the age of 14 as a “criminal minor” who is immune from punishment for crimes. Legal minors from the age 14 to 18 can be punished by the criminal law but with more lenient standards than for adults, and those aged between 10 and 14 are immune from criminal punishment but can be subject to protective custody.

Children under the age of 10 do not receive any punishment.

“I don’t know who to blame. Is it the parents, those kids, or the world?” the victim’s son was quoted as saying in a recent interview.

A similar incident occurred in 2015 when a 55-year-old woman was struck to death by a brick thrown by an 11-year-old boy, who was put in protective custody on a charge of causing death by negligence. The incident, along with other crimes committed by children too young to punish had set off controversy about possibly lowering the age at which minors can face punishment.

According to the National Police Agency data revealed by Rep. Cho Eun-hee of the ruling People Power Party, the number of crimes committed by children aged under 14 more than doubled from 7,364 in 2018 to 16,435 last year. Over 70 percent of the crimes were theft and violence, 7,874 and 4,075, respectively.

Of those crimes, 557 were sexual assault while 58 were arson.

On April 21, six teenagers in April beat up a middle school student and took pictures of her in her underwear, which they then used to extort money from her. But only three were subject to criminal punishment as the rest were under 14.

When asked by the victim’s parents to apologize to the victim, the three answered “We’re criminal minors, so we don’t get punished. Don’t threaten us lol,” via text message.

In response, the Justice Ministry notified the public last October of a move to lower the minimum age for criminal sentencing. Eight related bills have been proposed to the National Assembly, which would lower the age to 13 or 12.

But the bills have encountered obstacles since then. The National Human Rights Committee of Korea on Oct. 26 said such action was inappropriate, as did the National Court Administration in February of this year.