By Ri Yoo

Headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea

On March 6, 2010, a thirteen-year-old girl who had been missing since February 24, 2010, was found dead in a rooftop water tank near her house in Busan, South Korea. The naked body was covered with black plastic bags and calcium carbonate, and showed signs of rape before suffocation. Based on evidence, including a DNA sample from the teenager’s body and a sweater dumped near the water tank, police indentified Kim Kil-tae as the main suspect. After hiding successfully for fifteen days after the girl’s disappearance, Kim was arrested four days after the body was discovered. Charged with rape and murder, Kim initially denied all charges against him, but ultimately confessed to involvement in the crime.

In response to public outrage regarding the crime, police took unprecedented action and revealed Kim’s face when he was taken to the police station following his arrest. Korean law and National Police Agency guidelines require that police protect the privacy and human rights of criminal suspects by limiting media access or release of their identities during ongoing investigations. Following normal arrest procedures, police conceal a suspect’s face with baseball caps and masks in public. In other countries, including the United States, France, and Japan, it is very rare to find such police practices or laws that specifically regulate the conduct of law enforcement authorities regarding the publicity of suspects’ identities.

The controversy over whether to disclose the identity of a criminal suspect while he is under investigation is not new in South Korea. In 2009 when the police arrested serial killer Kang Ho-soon, the media exposed his face, claiming the people had a right to know his identity. Kang was later sentenced to death for killing ten women. Newspapers, broadcasters, and some members of the public argue that full disclosure of a criminal suspect’s identity, especially when law enforcement has strong evidence of guilt, ensures public safety and deters crime. On the other hand, human rights organizations and some communities, relying on the principle that suspects are innocent until proven guilty, stress that exposing the identity of a criminal suspect violates basic human rights. They also argue that such exposure inflicts emotional distress on the suspect’s family members and makes reassimilation into society upon release more difficult, which in turn contributes to recidivism.

A petition was filed on March 12, 2010, to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, alleging police wrongfully exposed Kim’s face to the public. However, there are indications that official police procedure may change in South Korea, undermining the petition’s claim. The governing Grand National Party of South Korea moved to amend the law last year, adding a Release of Identities Exception Provision to the Special Act on Punishment of Violent Crimes. The exception provision would allow disclosure of the name, age, and face of criminal suspects charged with serious crimes, such as murder, rape, or kidnapping, if the police have obtained a confession or strong evidence of guilt. The provision passed the Cabinet last July, but is currently pending at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly.

Different standards should be adopted for those suspected of heinous crimes because the safety of society is at higher risk in cases of serious crimes. Although there is no current rule to classify crimes as heinous, a consistent and clear standard can provide guidelines to law enforcement authorities to protect both societal interests and the suspects’ individual rights. Also, when the police have obtained a confession or have strong evidence of guilt, serving the public interest becomes more important than preventing the possible negative consequences of disclosure, because there is a high likelihood that the suspect will be convicted.