Jeong Won-seob soberly recalls the day he says his reputation was destroyed.
In a culture where “face” means everything, police led him, bound by rope and handcuffs, around his small hometown east of Seoul as dozens of friends and neighbors looked on.
The year was 1972 and Jeong, a comic book store owner, had been arrested in the rape and killing of a schoolgirl whose father was a top police official. He later spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit; decades later, in 2008, a Seoul court overturned his conviction.
But on that long-ago day, even before official charges were filed, Jeong endured what is known here as a crime re-creation: Led by stern-faced police officers to the site of the slaying, a clamoring public in tow, he was ordered to reenact exactly how he committed his alleged crime. But Jeong protested.
“My face was exposed,” said Jeong, 77, now a minister. “There were dozens of people screaming. Someone yelled, ‘Kill this guy!’ I wanted to disappear. I couldn’t lift my face to meet people’s gaze. It’s beyond torture. It kills a person two or three times.”
Although suspects in notorious U.S. crimes have been known to face “perp walks,” in which police allow the media to take photos and video, the practice is taken to another level in South Korea.
Critics call the crime “reenactments” a shameless way to appease a public ravenous for an appearance of justice. Proponents say the exercises often produce valuable evidence that is used to prosecute the cases.
A law passed this year empowers police to publicize the name, age and image of those arrested but not yet charged in connection with crimes that attract wide public attention, giving legal weight to the reenactments. Activists threaten to challenge the legislation.
“It’s a conflict between the public’s right to know and an individual’s privacy,” said Seo Suk-ho, executive director of legislation at the Korean Bar Assn. “Just yesterday, I saw a man arrested for a severe crime. The police covered him up, but people didn’t like it. Some said, ‘We don’t need to protect him.’ ”
He said public pressure on authorities after major crimes is immense, which in this case he believes has led to an unjust law that has bent to public opinion. “There’s a law here called ‘national sentiment,’ ” Seo said. “It means public sentiment stands above the law.”
Police insist that they are often pressured by victims’ families and the media to show the faces of those suspected of major crimes. In many cases, they say, newspaper reporters assigned to police stations keep tabs on investigations, publishing details of upcoming crime reenactments.
“We’d rather do these events in private,” said an official from the Korean National Police Agency, who did not give his name because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter. “Some people don’t trust the police. If we do things privately, they question our investigative tactics.”
In March, police released photos of another suspect who had been arrested in connection with the rape and slaying of a girl whose body had been dumped in a water tank near the suspect’s house.
Lawyers filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea that police wrongfully exposed the suspect’s face to the public. A month later, officials added the new provision to the Special Act on Punishment of Violent Crimes that legally permits police and prosecutors to disclose the photos and identities of violent offenders who have either confessed or are deemed to carry a strong suspicion of guilt.
That means the crime reenactments are here to stay, a fact that disturbs many legal scholars.
“Taking a person not yet charged with a crime for an on-site inspection is simply disturbing,” said Kang Dong-wook, a law professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Seo of the Korean Bar Assn. is reviewing the legality of the new law, a move that comes too late for Jeong, the minister. He remains haunted by his experience 38 years ago.
“Sometimes I wake up at night. I can’t forget the embarrassment, the shame. Even though I know I’m innocent,” he said. “People want to see the face of the accused, I understand that. The media calls it the public’s right to know. But sometimes people’s lives are ruined.”
Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.