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(Yonhap Feature) Hard time for judges: Would humbling gestures help?
By Kim Hyun
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Feb. 13 (Yonhap) -- It was meant to be a memorable occasion, the country's judiciary humbling itself and reflecting on its past with laymen's advice in an open forum for the first time in its history. No one really expected it to veer into an embarrassing commotion charged with cries, tears and invectives.

   "Thugs, robbers!" a middle-aged woman in the audience shouted as a judge announced the opening of the forum titled "Interaction 2012, Into the People" at the Seoul Central District Court last week. Half the crowd applauded and stood up with exclamations of rage. An elderly man holding the picture of his dead son cried, "Criminals!" as guards stopped his rush toward the panelists.

   "We expected this forum would not proceed in a smooth manner," Lee Jin-seong, head of the Seoul Central District Court that hosted the forum, said to the angry audience. "It seems all these things that have built up inside you are coming out today."

   The Feb. 6 forum was a rare humbling move by the courts grappling with escalating anti-judicial sentiment. The public furor has been rising to record heights recently after a series of films topping the nation's box office with stories of judicial corruption. Surveys indicate serious public disenchantment with the courts. What is behind this sudden outburst of anger toward the judiciary, and can the courts do anything to restore public confidence?

Participants at the judiciary's first-ever public forum on Feb.6 burst out in rage, accusing judges of corruption. The forum was arranged in response to growing distrust of the nation's courts. (Yonhap file photo)

The unchallenged authority of the courts has been a perennial target of public scorn in modern Korea, but it was a recent budget film that threw fuel on the simmering anti-judicial sentiment. "Unbowed," directed by realist director Chung Ji-young and based on a real story of a university professor accused of shooting a crossbow at a judge, triggered heated calls in social networking sites demanding a new trial. Since its release in January, the movie has been the top box office performer.

   In 1995, then an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Kim Myeong-ho divulged an error in the school's admission test and insisted the university admit to the mistake. But Kim was fired, accused of damaging the reputation of the university and his colleagues.

   Kim counted on the court to bring him justice, but his case that eventually went all the way up to the Supreme Court ended in favor of the university as judges dismissed his claim that his discharge was retaliatory.

   Frustrated and exhausted, he moved to the U.S. with his family but returned to Seoul in 2005 hoping to resume his legal battle. But the court again rejected the evidence he presented and delivered the same ruling. Then he shifted his target. On a winter evening in 2007, Kim took a crossbow and sneaked into the apartment building of a senior judge who had ruled on his case.

   The film spares no details from the case then dubbed the "Crossbow Terror Incident." Even the names are included. The director claims "95 percent of the movie was based on facts." Amplifying the mystery surrounding the case, the film reignited the long-held public suspicion that the crossbow trial might have been biased and faulty. The victim, then Seoul High Court senior judge Park Hong-woo, failed to submit to the court the crossbow that he said struck his chest. Kim is demanding a test to see if Park's blood matches the blood stains on his clothing. Kim claims the arrow was fired accidentally during a scuffle and that the arrow missed Park.

"Unbowed," a movie based on a true incident, ignited public anger against the judiciary and was a top ranking film for weeks. (Yonhap file photo)

After serving four years in jail, Kim was released in January 2011. Appearing on a cable channel interview, Kim didn't mince his words about what he thinks of the country's judiciary.

   "Judges are gangsters who ignore and violate the law," he said on the tvN talk show on Feb. 1. "To them, laymen have no power to resist and are only objects to be crushed. (With the crossbow), I wanted to give them a warning: If you continue to behave this way, you can be crushed, too."

   Kim has a way of irritating authority with his peculiar stubbornness, but his struggle has been an epiphany to many others frustrated with the courts, observers said.

   "What he had to go through was a lonely battle against the judiciary," Seo Hyeong, author of the 2009 book that closely followed Kim's case, "The Broken Arrow," said in the book. "The courts demand our highest respect on the grounds that they have the power to handle the law."

   According to a recent survey of about 1,100 people by The Good Law, a civic watchdog on legal professionals, 77 percent of respondents believed the courts are unfair. More than 80 percent called for the creation of a government agency to investigate corrupt judges and prosecutors. Eighty percent also thought the commercial success of the film "Unbowed," which attracted 2.6 million viewers in just three weeks, comes from the public distrust of the judiciary.

   But the judiciary has its own burdens. According to official data that compared the Korean judicial system with Japan's, Korean judges are overworked and strained under meager financial support. A judge in Korea was assigned 564 cases on average in 2010, compared to 248 cases in Japan. The judiciary's budget accounts for only 0.36 percent of the state budget this year, or 1.1 trillion won (US$1 billion) out of 325.4 trillion won, according to the data.

   "Judges work long hours and carry heavy workloads, so efficiency and speed are essential to their work," Cho Kuk, a professor of the Seoul National University Law School, said at the court forum. "But I believe the process leading up to a ruling is as important as the ruling itself. If the process is unfair, it would be hard for anyone to accept the result, however just it is," he said. "Like we see in the movie 'Unbowed,' the judges have this haughty image in the eye of the public -- 'I'm an elite and the only one who knows the truth.'"

   Rulings on business leaders have often fueled distrust of the judiciary, Cho noted. The Seoul appeals court in 2007 suspended a prison sentence on the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, Chung Mong-koo, for his embezzlement of more than 90 billion won, citing his big role in the nation's economy. The ruling empowered the popular notion that the courts side with the wealthy and the powerful.

   At the forum, the judicial authorities promised to hold similar forums regularly. But Park Jeong-gye, 64, who recently watched "Unbowed," was skeptical. She fumed over her compensation case she waged last year against a veterinary hospital for her dead dog, which was swiftly dismissed for lack of evidence.

   "How can there be absolute powers in a democratic society?" she asked. "But judges and prosecutors think there are."