(9) The Ups and Downs of the Choson Legal System

By Yang Sung-jin

The “fair and square” group of 15 judges at the Uijongbu Court reportedly took bribes from the local lawyers in return for favors. In response, the “just and impartial” prosecution announced it will not indict them on the grounds that the money exchanged does not amount to the level of bribery.

Fishy or not, a new legal principle has emerged in Korea: Judges, prosecutors and lawyers are excluded from the “universal” application of the law, while punishing the poor and powerless, in the name of “legal justice.”

The legal justice of the Choson Dynasty is worth a closer look because it has direct and indirect relations with today’s legal system that is tainted with the corruption scandal. The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty reveals a vast array of articles related to both the negative and positive applications of law.

One article dated 1589 details a murder case in which a literati named Yun Baek-won died after eating with a guest at his home. Yun Dok-kyong, son of the dead literati’s concubine, suspected the lawful wife’s daughter named “Kaemichi.”

Yun Dok-kyong filed a petition pointing Kaemichi as the culprit to the Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General). However, Kaemichi accused Yun and his two brothers of poisoning the food in order to kill their father.

The murder of a parent, under the strict Confucian moral standard, was subject to the severest penalty. Therefore, the investigation was conducted by a joint team comprising Sahonbu, Uijongbu (State Council) and Uikumbu (Royal Inspector’s Office). Unfortunately, the investigation resulted in the death of Kaemichi due to severe torture, leaving the case unresolved.

Related articles of the CD-ROM Annals provide background information on the incident. Even before the murder, the relations between Kaemichi and the three brothers had soured. The reason was that the lawful daughter had lost her right to the inheritance, while the three brothers by a concubine exclusively owned the property of the house. The mutual hostilities involving the inheritance culminated in the heated battle over the murder.

Case Revisited

Interestingly, the unresolved case returned to the public focus over 10 years after the investigation was wrapped up. In 1602, Kaemichi’s son filed a petition calling for the re-investigation of the case to unearth the truth.

Again, the joint investigation team questioned the three brothers. This time, they secured a confession from the suspects, proving they had orchestrated the murder.

However, the three brothers were released despite their admission of guilt. The king then duly inquired about the unusual leniency exercised: “The three brothers’ false accusation resulted in Kaemichi’s death, which obviously amounts to capital punishment. But why they were released?”

The king’s question went unanswered. Ten years later, another article dated July 3, 1612, comments upon the controversial murder and acquittal case: “People believe Kaemichi was wrongly killed during questioning because there was no hard evidence confirming her crime. Now the three brothers have also died. The king’s attention in favor of the dead Kaemichi is due to the fact that she had relations with the royal family.”

“It is interesting to see a murder case being discussed and reviewed by the Choson chroniclers even 20 years after the incident. Yet, the related articles also shed some light on the prevalent collusion between the high-ranking officials and the law enforcement officers, distorting the legal system,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

Korean Teflon

Another controversial murder case reflects the omnipotent political power getting in the way of the fair enforcement of legal procedure. On Jan. 11, 1478, a dead body bearing numerous knife wounds was found in Seoul. The investigation looked into the case, with no visible success.

The king issued a public announcement promising a reward for those who provided a clue to the case.

Late in the month, the investigation institutions received an anonymous letter suggesting a person named “Kawoe” knew the dead woman. Kawoe was immediately called upon and questioned by interrogators. He confessed that the murdered woman was a former slave of Changwongun, a son by a concubine of late King Sejo (reign: 1455-1468).

The investigation also found that Changwongun had tried to rape the murdered woman. To prove the case against the royal family member, the investigators asked Changwongun to turn in the entire list of slaves he owned, which he strongly refused.

Facing the controversial case involving the royalty, the Choson administration was on high alert. Reported on Changwongun’s refusal to comply with the investigation, King Songjong ordered the list of slaves to be brought to the court.

Finally, the investigators secured the confession from Changwongun’s three slaves, confirming the suspicion that the royalty had masterminded the murder.

For all the evidence and confession, Changwongun denied the charge vehemently. He said, “This incident is fabricated by my servants fearing torture. I did not commit such a crime.”

Even with strong evidence, including blood being found in Changwongun’s house, the prosecution hesitated in formally indicting a member of the royal family.

An article dated Feb. 28 shows that King Songjong delayed the imprisonment of the royalty: “Changwongun told me he was wrongly accused. I found the investigation report has no hard evidence. If the woman was killed by a knife, it should be somewhere. Send people to search for the knife.”

On March 11, the investigation concluded that Changwongun was the murderer and asked for the king to deliver a sentence. Under strong pressure, the king ordered the disgraced royal member to be punished.

But two days later, the king mitigated the penalty, asking the officials to consider Changwongun’s royal status.

Eventually, no punishment was placed on the convicted murderer despite the strong opposition of officials, calling for the fair and universal application of law.

Choson’s Solomon

King Chongjo (reign: 1776-1800) is respected as one of the best judges during the Choson Dynasty. The much-admired king tried to set up a fairer legal foundation with his extensive knowledge about legal cases.

One of the famous rulings by King Chongjo is recorded in an article dated in 1790, describing a murder case. A married woman named Eunae, living in southwestern Cholla province, was arrested on charges of murdering her neighbor with a knife.

When questioned about the murder, Eunae confessed her crime without showing any regret, “Choe Chong-ryon, living next to my house, spread the false rumor that he slept with me in the hope of marrying me. As I married another man, Choe and his friend Ahn Cho-e openly spread the bad word about me. I was so angry that I went to Ahn’s house to kill her. I even tried to kill Choe but I couldn’t, because of his mother’s interference. I implore the government to put Choe to death, as well.”

Reading the bold and imposing testimony of Eunae, King Chongjo asked the prosecutors’ opinion. As expected, the officials demanded the death penalty. But the king had a different idea.

King Chongjo said, “Eunae is aged less than 18, but she was wrongly humiliated concerning her virginity. Therefore, it is understandable that she tried to prove the truth, risking her own life. Moreover, she talked about her reason quite frankly, even though she knew it could lead to the death penalty.

“Decades ago, the same incident happened in Hwanghae-do. But the local governor forgave and released the convict. It is said that when the woman was released, countless matchmakers rushed to get her. Since Eunae’s case is in the same category, I grant her to be released.”

The government officials that had called for capital punishment, helplessly backed off from their position because the king’s generosity was based on his extensive knowledge about legal cases, plus his prudent perspective.

The king did not stop there. He considered the case late into the night and the next day ordered the officials to get a document from Eunae, promising not to attack Choe again: “I released Eunae in honor of her courage. But she is likely to seek revenge against Choe Chong-ryon in the future because of her strong character. Which means, by releasing Eunae, we may put another person’s life in danger, which goes against the spirit of law. Therefore, I order the related office to get a confirmation from Eunae, promising not to attack Choe.”

“Though King Chongjo’s rulings were limited to the moral standard of the Choson Dynasty, he is a sensible judge, interpreting the legal code in a flexible way to ensure more fairness,” researcher Lee explained.

King Chongjo’s respectable rulings could serve as a useful reminder for the 15 Uijongbu judges, who are “strict” for others’ misconduct, yet mysteriously “flexible” about their own.