Only One Truth: The Statute of Limitations
Only One Truth: The Statute of Limitations
  • Jung Kim Hyeseung, Oh Hwang Junhee
  • 승인 2019.12.02 10:12
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Fifteen years ago, a series of murders broke out in a city, which created a huge stir in the world. Although the entire nation put forth an earnest effort to solve the murders, the statute of limitations expired, and for 15 years the criminal went unpunished for the horrific crimes. The detective in charge of the investigation spent years in self-doubt knowing that the case remained unsolved. Two years after the statute of limitations ran out, a suspect has emerged and it seems he is the murder. He has taken credit for the murders in a book called Confession of Murder, which has become a bestseller in the movie. This is the storyline of the movie <Confession of Murder (2012)>. What exactly is the law referred to as the statute of limitations? Why can investigators not legally arrest the criminal even if they are sure they have the right person, especially when he turned himself in?


Is the statute of limitations indulgence?

The statute of limitations refers to the law that states after a certain period of time, no prosecution shall occur, regardless of the crime. In other words, after a set period of time has elapsed, prosecutors may not seek prosecution in a court of law. The Criminal Procedure Act of the Republic of Korea stipulates the statute of limitations period in accordance with the crime. The period was recently amended with revision of the Act on December 21, 2007. However, for crimes before that date, prosecutors must follow the previous law. For example, according to Article 249 of the Criminal Procedure Act, the death penalty carries the statute of limitations of 25 years, up from the original 15 years, life imprisonment was changed from 10 years to 15 years, and for sentences of more than 10 years imprisonment, it was extended from 7 years to 10 years. Now in the law, the statute of limitations does not have a set expiration period for both first-degree murder and manslaughter. This new law took effect on July 31, 2015. In addition, the statute of limitations may be suspended in cases when a criminal escapes the nation with the aim of avoiding punishment. That is, there are now various regulations on how to apply the law.
As time passed, people’s opinions on the statute of limitations are also changing. The research website Do-it Survey surveyed 4,907 people regarding their opinion on the statute of limitations from June 23 to 30, 2014. 48% of respondents said the statute of limitations was unnecessary while 32% said the statute of limitations was necessary. However, the same survey was conducted on 4,571 people from Sept. 23 to Oct. 10, 2019, and survey results found that 74.6% said the statute of limitations was inappropriate, while 9.3% said it is appropriate. Public opinion on the statute of limitations has become more negative over time. Also, on Sept 19, 2019, a message was posted on the website of the National Petition Board calling for the nullification of the Statute of Limitations for Lee Chunjae, who is the Hwaseong Serial Killer. The petition finally received 3,138 signatures. At the moment, he is serving time for murdering his sister-in-law. The statute of limitations for murders in the 80s and 90s expired a long time ago, so he cannot be charged with those crimes. Discussions and comments on the law are rising once more, and people are complaining about the fact that prospectors can’t file a complaint because they are blocked by the law, even though the cold case culprit has been revealed.



Martin Luther wrote 95-Theses

As mentioned earlier, people in Korea have generally negative views on the statute of limitations. Learning that it had expired in the Hwaseong case, the public began to raise their voice and demand abolishing or modifying the law and punishments for crimes. People are citing the limitations and problems of the statute of limitations as reasons for the need to abolish it. One of the biggest problems with the statute of limitations is that criminals may use the system for their advantage. For instance, a criminal who commits a crime could, according to the law, avoid punishment by hiding their whereabouts until the statute of limitations expires. According to Kang Chang-il of the National Assembly’s Public Administration and Security Committee, 8,282 cold cases could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations ran out on them between 2014 and August this year. Among them, there are more than 5,000 cases of fraud or embezzlement. Kang said, “There are more than 1,000 cold cases every year that cannot be prosecuted because of the expiration of the statute of limitations, and many of them are embezzlement crimes, which resonate with ordinary people and causes a lot of severe psychological and economic damage to the victims.”1)  In other words, the criminals are using the law as a means of escaping punishment and this is the source of much pain for victims.
The statute of limitations is problematic in that criminals cannot be punished because of it. At the same time, it is also problematic in that it does not protect victims of the crimes. This is especially painful for victims who suffered financial damages or sexual crimes. One example relates to the ‘Me-Too movement’, which was actively carried out last year. 11 reports of crimes by Lee Yoontaek, a well-known director in the film industry, including molestation and sexually assault, were all dismissed because the statute of limitations expired. Criminals of sexual harassment and sexual assault are also subject to punishment, but they weren’t, because the statute of limitations of sexual crime is up to 10 years. In fact, the most unresolved cases took place in the early 2000s. In comparison, the U.S. abolished its statute of limitations on rape in about 20 states, and Japan sets a 30-year statute of limitations on rape and other crimes. In Korea, the current statute of limitations is not on the side of victims who report incidents and seek investigative agencies for help.
By comparing our system with those of other countries in terms of matching the crime with the statute of limitations, Korea falls short. As mentioned earlier, the statute of limitations on sex crimes in Korea is up to 10 years while a large number of states in the U.S. have abolished the law on sexual crimes. In addition, Korea’s statute of limitations does not only apply to crimes that are punishable by a capital sentence, but to most other crimes as well. In contrast, the U.K. establishes a provision which in principle, does not apply the statute of limitations to some cases. Yoo Jimin, Department of English Language & Literature ’19 said, “The law negatively favors the criminals. Why can Korea not put the Hwaseong Serial Killer on trial even though he has been captured? Our society should rethink the purpose of the law.” Although there are problems following the abolition of the law such as difficulty proving guilty and the cost of a long-term investigation, other social issues remain as well. There is an urge from people that society needs to discuss rising concerns that the statute of limitations is being exploited by criminals who know the time period of their statute of limitations. Also, there is a need to look at how society is not fully protecting crime victims.




Controversy over incompleteness

Nevertheless, a small number of people, including some experts, argue against abolishing the law. The strongest opposing argument is the finite nature of evidence. Korea embraces judgments based on evidence. In Article 307 of the Criminal Procedure Act, Section 1 states, “Acknowledgement of the facts must be made by evidence.” In addition, Section 2 states, “Verification of criminal facts must be made to the level of reasonable doubt.” These two sections of the article in the law clearly highlight the need for trial evidence. In addition, among the three principles of a criminal investigation, the principle of rapid acquisition and on-site preservation is the most important. If the statute of limitations is abolished and investigations are allowed to continue without a time constraint, the principles of a criminal investigation are violated. In other words, the probability of damage to evidence is proportional to time. A Lawyer Cha, a Graduate of Division of Law ’11, said, “Technological advances in biometric information are insufficient. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that damaged evidence causes errors in scientific research. Therefore, there is a need for the court to examine the evidence closely so that the court can decide whether it’s admissible and credible.” Therefore, there is a high probability of meaningless investigation when there is no or a long time frame.

Efficiency of police work must be ensured as well. As of 2018, the number of police officers was 6,774 per capita population of 498 according to the South Gyeongsang Provincial Police Agency. Seoul has the lowest number of citizens per police officer in the country. This leaves an individual police officer with lots of works to do. Furthermore, according to the Constitutional Court, the number of cases that were petitioned to courts was over 1,000 as of July. The number of civil cases is on the rise, from 120,016 in 2017, to 129,066 in 2019. However, if the statute of limitations is abolished, the accumulation of closed cases will increase because the investigations will be delayed. If the limitation on cases is lengthened or removed, the work by police officers will become less efficient since many of them will be working on older cases and will have no time for new cases. Cha said, “I recognize the correlation between the abolition of the system and overwork. While the case is treated as a long-term unsolved event, it may be neglected, if not closed.” In this respect, it shows that abolition of statutes is not just a problem, but can also lead to negative problems behind it.
Likewise, the arrest rate is another argument of opponents. According to the prosecution office, the arrest rate in Korea is 76.9% higher than 2014. As of 2005, Korea police officers made 1,023 arrests out of 1,061 criminal investigations (96.4%). The U.S. and Japan, on the other hand, made 10,102 arrests among 16,137 cases (62.6%) and 1,342 out of 1,419 (94.5%), respectively. This shows that Korea’s arrest rate is higher than those countries. However, if the statute of limitations is abolished, the arrest rate could lower due to the lack of time and human resources. The police will spend much time on long-term unsolved cases. Concerning the problem, Gwangju police formed a task force to resolve these social issues in 2012 but was criticized by the public after it was discovered that the task force had failed to resolve any of its 10 cold cases. Police in each province have expressed their confidences to the press, claiming there are only 300 unsolved murders. However, there is no visible outcome until 2019. If the number of unsolved cases continues to increase, public confidence in the police force will likely decrease.



Completion started from difference

While there is a large voice calling for the abolishing the statute of limitations, there is also a voice calling for the need to hear experts, who insist on limiting time frames for evidence, ensuring the efficiency of police work, and speak out on possible reduced arrest rates. Both sides present logical reasons for their opinions on the abolishing of the law.  Nevertheless, in addition to these views, it is important not to overlook the inherent system problems. Just as the deadline, targets and types of incidents for the statute of limitations have been changed, there’s a need to try to solve fundamental problems. By considering these other factors, public opinion and thoughts would make another change as supplement.


1) Kim Kihoon, “There Were More Than 8,000 Cold Cases Over the Last Five Years That Could Not Be Prosecuted Because of the Statute of Limitations”, Yonhap News, September 26, 2019.


Jung Kim Hyeseung / Reporter
Oh Hwang Junhee / Reporter

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