By Yang Sung-jin
Notorious prison escapee Shin Chang-won’s 30-month-long game of cat- and-mouse with police was brought to an end when he was captured in Sunchon, Cholla-namdo in mid-July.
Shin, 32, escaped from a prison in the southeastern port city of Pusan on January 20, 1997. Never before in the nation’s history had a prison escapee eluded capture for such a long period of time.
Shin’s unparalleled knack for slipping through police dragnets — and for attracting lovers willing to hide him in the face of a nationwide manhunt — spawned a slew of myths.
But robbery is still robbery and Shin is no Robin Hood.
Just as Shin rattled modern-day police officers, a host of robbers shamed their counterparts during the Choson era.
In one notable incident, a diplomatic delegation was assaulted on March 26, 1402 by 200-odd robbers in a northwestern city near the Chinese border. The thieves made off with government goods and horses and only a couple of officials managed to escape unscathed.
In April 1420, a burglar sneaked into a government safe and stole state- owned valuables. Assuming that the criminal might be an insider familiar with the location and structure of the safe, the government arrested and grilled some 50 court guards who had stood watch that night.
Whether the criminal was nabbed, however, was not specified in the Annals article.
In general, Choson society had very strict laws governing shoplifting and robbery. Penalties for criminal activity were much harsher than they are today.
Steal at Your Own Risk
Government employees, whether high-ranking officials or rank-and-file public servants, were slapped with especially heavy punishments.
No wonder, then, that Choson officials readily proposed the death sentence for a minor official named Cha-kun who was arrested on a charge of stealing government clothes and valuables in November, 1423.
Similarly, Choe Sae-on, former magistrate of Dokchon, was beheaded on embezzlement charges in 1424.
King Sejong, known for his generosity and compassion, did not hesitate to call for capital punishment in Choe’s case, mainly because he stole from the government-owned rice reserve whose stocks were meant for starving people.
“This man cannot be compared with other corrupt officials since he starved people to death by stealing precious relief food,” the king said in ordering Choe beheaded.
In the same year, the central government stipulated the punishment which was to be used on those guilty of stealing horses and cows, property of considerable importance in the agriculture-based society.
“Those who steal horses and cows were previously slapped with 100 strokes with a cudgel and three years in prison but this was regard as too lenient a penalty. Therefore, such criminals should serve in the navy while having their property confiscated in addition to the existing punishment,” the Ministry of Punishments suggested. King Sejong accepted the proposal and strengthened related laws.
All of which does not necessarily mean the Choson’s legal system tended to favor hasty punishment in the absence of thorough investigations.
For example, when government investigators charged a female servant named Su-chong with pilfering government property in 1426, King Sejong initially okayed a proposal to execute her.
But a ranking official named Ko Yak-hae put the brakes on the procedure, taking issue with the brief investigation of the case, which he feared might lead to Su-chong’s wrongful conviction.
“What I suggest is that killing a person for committing a crime is not a thing to be done carelessly. Ancient rulers did not order the use of capital punishment unless they had earnestly scrutinized the case. Furthermore, death row inmates were sentenced only after three separate investigations,” Ko argued.
Ko went on to say that imposing the death penalty on the female servant was unjust in that three probes had not been conducted.
After considering Ko’s urgent appeal, King Sejong changed his mind and ordered prosecutors to re-investigate the case.
Minor thefts were not even a major concern of Choson officials, who had to grapple with far more serious incidents of robbery by heavily armed robbers in remote areas in the countryside.
In 1428, the governor of Hwanghae-do provided details of a crackdown on such outlaws.
“In Tapjae, some 20 butchers turned to robbery, setting fire to villages and stealing their goods. We chased after them, all of them armed with bows and arrows. They resisted our attack but we captured seven robbers and killed one. Of the captives, one woman was disguised as a man. The rest of them ran off toward Kaesong,” the governor said.
In staging a nationwide manhunt for the criminals, the Choson government also resorted to offering rewards for information as to the whereabouts of criminal suspects.
The civilian who tipped off police as to Shin Chang-won’s hideout received a 50 million won reward. But back in 1429, King Sejong said citizens whose tips led to the apprehension of murderers would be awarded 100 rolls of cotton and all the criminal’s property.
Even the problem of incompetent police officers has persisted since the Chosen Kingdom.
Shin’s diary, unveiled a couple of days after his arrest, vividly testified to the incompetence of police officers to apprehend criminals. The convicted murderer managed to evade capture on at least six separate occasions despite supposed water-tight police cordons.
In 1431, King Sejong ordered the interrogation of officials Lee Paek-kum, Park Hup and three guards, all of whom failed to immediately report a murder in an apparent bid to cover up their responsibility.
It is a pity that police hurriedly wrapped up their investigation into Shin Chang-won’s countless crimes when a lengthier probe held the promise of revealing why police failed to capture him despite numerous face-to-face encounters and a considerable number of tips from ordinary citizens.