(7) Choson Had Humanitarian Legal System

By Yang Sung-jin

To celebrate the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung, the government granted special amnesty affecting 5.52 million people last Friday, the biggest ever in the country’s 50-year constitutional history.

By freeing citizens from their past errors, the conciliatory measure is expected to generate social harmony and reconciliation, both of which are much needed to cope with the current economic crisis.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty also shows numerous cases of pardons conducted by the kings, whose effects were not dissimilar to today’s amnesty orchestrated by the president.

But pardon is only part of the sophisticated legal system of Choson, based firmly on the belief that humanitarian generosity is more effective than the harsh application of the law in governing the society.

Representing the big picture of the Choson’s legal system is “Kyongguk Taejon” (National Code), a statutory code defining the structure and functioning of Choson’s government.

Intriguing is the fact that the centerpiece of the Choson’s legal system was promulgated in the second year of Songjong’s reign in 1471, about 80 years after the foundation of the nation.

“The much delayed compilation of the legal code is partly because the Choson referred as a model to Ming China’s social system including its advanced criminal law. It is also because the Choson maintained pro-Ming diplomatic policy from the outset,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

Whatever the reason, it remains true that Kyongguk Taejon represented the first complete compilation of the legal codes of the day. Moreover, the administrative law’s implications were are greater than generally imagined.

“Choson officials classified the existence of Kyongguk Taejon as the top secret especially to Ming China. They made much efforts to hide it from Ming China’s diplomats,” Lee explained.

The secret was kept, only for the time being. According to the CD-ROM Annals, a couple of Ming China’s generals, dispatched to support Choson army against Japan during the 1592 Hideyoshi Invasion, were staying in Chongju. They happened to find Kyongguk Taejon, which caused much concern in the royal court in Choson.

Official Kim Wu-ong states, “Ming generals got angered about our excuse for not showing Kyongguk Taejon. Calling our excuse as deception, they are now demanding Kyongguk Taejon through translators.”

Though King Sonjo and the high-ranking officials made utmost efforts not to show it to China, Ming General named “Wonjusa” read Kyongguk Taejon in 1953.

Emergency meetings were held in order to deal with the situation while trying to come up with plausible excuse not to turn in the legal code to Ming China. In addition, two officials involved in the disclosure faced punishment.

But why did the Choson officials try to hide Kyongguk Taejon? The Annals recorded mainly three reasons for the confidentiality of Kyongguk Taejon to China. First, it contains the official titles of deceased kings, whose level amounts to the emperor of Ming China. Second, there is a passage indicating Choson has sent diplomats to Japan, which Ming China prohibited. Third, included in the code is the clause banning the circulation of gold and silver, which is against Ming China’s demand.

“This passage is very important. It shows that pro-Ming Choson managed to use the titles of deceased kings independently, once monopolized by China. Also, it means that Choson maintained its own diplomatic relations with Japan and banned the use of gold to keep it from China’s demand for tribute,” Lee said.

Knowledge is ‘Legal’ Power

Apart from political implications of Kyongguk Taejon, it must be noted that the legal principle of the Choson Dynasty is humanitarian, even by today’s standard.

A surprising case in point is the government’s legal education targeting the public when a new law was enacted. A document dated in May 1415 includes the passage from today’s Justice Ministry: “It is deplorable that the ignorant public fall into a crime mainly because they do not know the law. The officials in charge of enforcing the law should teach it to public through lecture.”

Named “Dokbopryong” (reading legal statutes), the system greatly helped the people to understand the law, which in turn prevented the crimes resulted from the ignorance, Lee explained.

Yet teaching the jargon-jammed legal codes to the public was not easy. In 1439, King Sejong stated, “It is really difficult to make the public to know all the passages of the statutes. But if we select the 20-something points related to the capital punishment and publicize them to people, we will be able to reduce the number of death sentences.”

Equally important is the bail system. King Taejong ordered the officials to set up a bail system in an effort to encourage the use of newly launched paper money in 1411. But the officials desperately opposed it, citing the possibility that sagwan (historiographer) will point it out as an unfair system in which a sinner is released without being duly punished.

Yet King Taejong did not cave in, and instead stated, “Governing the people through harsh punishment cannot be compared with the slight penalties encouraging them to correct themselves. There is nothing to be ashamed of [in implementing bail system] even though sagwan will record it.”

King Sejong was particularly worried about the abuse of harsh punishment. In 1422, three men were arrested on the charges of setting fire at the ammunition storehouse. In the interrogating process, one man was killed by relentless torture, the other two severely injured. Yet, it turned out that three were innocent.

“The dead cannot be revived, severed body parts cannot be restored. Therefore, it’s useless to regret what’s already happened. This is what I am worried about day and night. Officials should remember this tragic incident for securing fairness, avoiding prejudice. Don’t be pleased with quick confession, don’t wish for a quick imprisonment. Search for evidence from all directions possible over and over again so that no one is falsely accused.”

Appeal, Appeal, Appeal

To prevent a false accusation, there was a highly advanced system named “Sambokbop” (three time appeal law), which applied only to the cases involving capital punishment. The record about today’s appeal system is found in a document dated in 1392 in which today’s Justice Ministry pointed out the necessity of implementing “Sambokbop” to secure a fairer trial.

“Throughout the Choson Dynasty, only the king could decide the capital punishment. Except for special cases, most defendants were given the chances to appeal three times. If proven guilty, the execution was carried out at the end of the year,” Lee said.

The minimum safety mechanism for human rights, however, was repealed temporarily due to the political feuding. According to the CD-ROM Annals, official named Kim An-ro mounted a political attack on his opposition faction, through which he abolished the Sambokbop in order to execute his enemies en masse. In 1539, the king granted law being re-enacted at the request of the officials.

“In fact, Sambokbop is a symbol of the king’s sympathy for the public. Placed in the same context is the king’s special amnesty timed with royal occasions such as coronation ceremony or birthday,” Lee said.

In addition, special pardons affecting minor prisoners were issued when the nation was suffering from natural disasters such as drought and famine.

“The general notion of the day was that the natural disasters are due to the king’s lack of virtue and the people’s rising resentment. Pardon was believed to resolve such conflict,” Lee added.

For all the positive effects of pardon, it remains to be seen whether last week’s special amnesty by President Kim Dae-jung will meet public expectations. A passage of the Annals dated in January, 1547, sheds light on the true meaning of pardon: “There is a old saying that wise king issues fewer, yet effective pardons. In contrast, social disorder often results in frequent pardons, which are likely to be only perfunctory.”