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A Punitive But Non-Punitive Society: An Explanation Of The Specificity Of Penal Populism In South Korea

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posted on 2021-12-09, 09:27 authored by Hun Young Lee

It is argued in existing Korean criminological literature that penal populism has strongly influenced the criminal justice system over the last two decades in South Korea (‘SK’, hereafter). Their contention is based on the evidence of punitive penal policies formulated around sex offences against children since the 2000s. These policies include increased minimum sentencing for sex offenders, increased maximum terms of imprisonment, sex offender registration and community notification, electronic monitoring, and chemical castration.  However, imprisonment rates in SK, one of the main indicators of punitiveness in other countries, rapidly decreased in the 2000s and have since then been stable. Moreover, the imprisonment rates in this country are significantly lower than those of other societies where penal populism has occurred, including the US, England, and New Zealand. Why, then, do criminologists in SK argue that penal populism has flourished in SK at a time when imprisonment rates are not sufficiently high to invoke punitiveness, let alone the downward (and stabilising) trend of imprisonment rates?  The purpose of this thesis is to explain the punitive penal developments in SK since the 2000s, by drawing upon Pratt’s (2007) penal populism theory. Firstly, the contention in Korean criminology that penal populism has strongly operated and impacted the penal landscape in SK is empirically demonstrated. This demonstration is based on analyses of newspaper articles, social media, legislative bills, and minutes of the National Assembly with regard to sexual violence against children.  This is followed by an explanation of the specific form of penal populism in SK, which is focused exclusively around sexual violence against children. The explanation draws on a social analysis of why and how the sensibilities of South Koreans toward children and the safety of children have changed over recent decades. The main argument here is that the socio-cultural value of children created under the tradition of Confucian familialism in SK has significantly increased through immense social, economic, and structural changes. These changes were brought about by a compressed process of industrialisation, which began as early as the 1960s, and the transition to late-modern society from the 1990s onwards.  Lastly, this thesis seeks to explain the apparent contradiction between penal populism and the rapid decrease of the imprisonment rate in the 2000s in SK. I argue here that the rapid decrease of the imprisonment rate at that time was primarily caused by the changed patterns of pardon, parole, and remand within the context of the criminal justice reforms driven by the two progressive governments between 1998 and 2007. In addition, during the CJS reforms, ‘independence of the judiciary’ was upheld as the most important value, which regulated institutional arrangements in regard to sentencing in particular. Within these arrangements, the judiciary has been able to resist the impact of penal populism, which also contributed to the decrease of the imprisonment rate in the 2000s in this country.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Institute of Criminology

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Pratt, John; Bradley, Trevor