Is the Law Always Right?: A Study of the Statute of Limitations and the Police System Through “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases”

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Is the Law Always Right?: A Study of the Statute of Limitations and the Police System Through “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases”

Elizabeth Han
Published by the PIT Journal: 



In the last decades of the twentieth century, South Korea was shaken by three distinct series of shocking crimes. The first began on September 15, 1986. It was a rainy day when a woman of seventy-one was found dead, her hands tied up with stockings and her face covered with her underwear. It was obvious that she had been raped. For five years, until 1991, nine women were found dead in the same area. They had all been raped, and their hands were tied up with their stockings. It was serial murder.

January 29, 1999. A ten-year-old boy was sitting on a swing at the playground. But then he suddenly disappeared. He had been kidnapped. After forty-four days, the boy was found dead, and it was clear that he had been killed right after he was kidnapped. However, for months after the kidnapping, the killer had tricked the boy’s parents into thinking he was still alive by using voice recordings. The killer called the parents forty-six times and ordered them to prepare money.

March 26, 1991. Five children went to a mountain and disappeared for eleven years. In 2002, their skulls were found on a different mountain.

These three cases are regarded as the most infamous tragic criminal occurrences in South Korea because the crimes were so cruel and the culprits were never captured. Because of their notoriety, these cases are called “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases.” After each case was made public, critics blamed both the statute of limitations and police inefficiency, though officials defended the status quo. Still, the public criticism is just part of an ongoing debate about whether the statute of limitations and the police system are actually promoting justice in South Korea. As further complications arise due to the problematic statute of limitations and police mismanagement, the number of unresolved cases in South Korea is increasing (Hong, 2006), and the debate is becoming more intense. Some argue that, ironically, the legal and police systems that are supposed to protect human rights and support justice are hindering the promotion of justice and investigative efficiency in South Korea.

In the paper, I will argue that the current systems of the statute of limitations and police in South Korea are not promoting justice, a point of view that I hold on the basis of the critical debate between Tae-young Ha, Tae-kon Oh, and Sang-kyu Lim that will be discussed later. I will also suggest some possible solutions to these problems. First, I will provide a brief history of the statute of limitations and current police system in South Korea. This information will be helpful in understanding both the purpose of the statute of limitations was created and the police system’s effort to support justice. Second, I will present critical debates about the efficiency and justness of the statute of limitations and the police system. Three scholars will feature in the debate insofar as they provide both the justification for and the criticism about the statue of limitations. Another scholar and the police reports on “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases” will provide additional information about mistakes made during the investigations. Third, I will examine the problems of the statute of limitations and police system in “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases” more specifically to support my main claim that the statute of limitations and the police system in South Korea are not promoting justice. Lastly, I will suggest possible solutions to the problems with the current legal and police system in South Korea so that further increase in unresolved cases is prevented.

Defining Terms and Crucial Background on the Legal and Police System

Knowing the concept and background of the legal system is crucial for understanding the justification and problems of the system that will be discussed later. The statute of limitations is the law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought to bear on any given crime. The statute has its basis in ancient Roman law, but it came into South Korea when Japan colonized South Korea in 1910. During the 1980s and 1990s, when the three criminal cases occurred, the statute of limitations for murder cases in South Korea was fifteen years, which was shorter than the statute in most other developed countries. For instance, Japan’s statute is twenty-five years, Germany’s is thirty years, and the U.S. does not have a statute of limitations for murder cases (Ha 2002, 535). On December 21, 2007, the statute for murder cases in South Korea was finally extended to twenty-five years due to the public’s opposition to the previous, shorter statute. The crimes that occurred before December 21, 2007, however, still fall under the older fifteen years of the statute of limitations.

In addition to an elucidation of the statute of limitations, it is advantageous to briefly consider some background information on the South Korean police system. It is currently estimated that there are 501 Korean citizens per police officer in South Korea (Kyungbook Police Agency 2013). This means that one police officer has to take care of 501 citizens; this correspondence marks the most disparate ratio of any among the major developed countries. This implies that the current number of police officers in South Korea is insufficient when compared to other countries. Another notable characteristic of the current police system is the lack of independent investigative power. Investigative power refers to the police officer’s ability to collect evidence to investigate a case. When a crime occurs, the judicial police officers initiate the investigation. Then, the case is transferred to the public prosecutor, and the prosecutor continues the investigation by questioning the suspect and related people and examining documents and other evidence. From there, the police officers can only investigate under the supervision of the prosecutor. The current police system is criticized for this hereafter, and the statute of limitations is often compared to the statute in other developed countries when being criticized.   

Critical Debate About the Legal and Police System

In discussions of “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases” in South Korea, one controversial issue has been whether the statute of limitations in South Korea is promoting justice. On the one hand, some policy makers and government officials argue that the statute of limitations is necessary for several reasons. For one, it protects the rights of accused criminals by assuming that long-term flight as fugitives may provide punishment enough. It also helps officials from wrongly suspecting innocent people, because if evidence is not discovered over the course of fifteen years, it may imply that any given suspect is not the criminal. It also saves government funding. On the other hand, several law scholars, such as Sang-kyu Lim and Tae Young Ha, contend that the statute of limitations is morally invalid because it allows criminals to avoid proper punishment after a certain amount of time and because it fails to properly protect the rights of victims.

Another controversial issue regarding “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases” has been whether the police system supports justice. Some high-ranking police officers claim that the problems involved with solving the three criminal cases were not the police system at that time, but rather the careful planning and intelligence of the criminals and the way that the government was distracted by other issues at the time the murders occurred. Also, many scholars, including Tae-kon Oh, a professor of police administration at Jeonnam Provincial College, and the families of victims argue that the disorganization and corruption of the police system hindered the capture of criminals. I agree with the scholars and families mentioned above that the statute of limitations and the current police system in South Korea are not promoting justice because the statute of limitations is immoral and encourages more crime to occur. Furthermore, I believe that the police receive inadequate training and have insufficient independent investigative power.

Though I have already suggested some of the ways officials justify the statute of limitations, Dong-un Shin, a professor in the Law School at Seoul National University, presents additional reasons. In his book, The Criminal Procedural Code I, Shin summarizes the reasons why the statute of limitations is necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court was the first to state the reasons for the necessity of the statute of limitations. Shin summarizes six facts that justify the existence of the statute:

1) the fact that it is difficult to find substantive truth due to the destruction of evidence; 2) the fact that the basic rights of individuals may be infringed if the criminals are subjected to the criminal charges when it is difficult to find substantive truth; 3) the fact that the purpose of punishment decreases as the social concern is weakened due to the passage of time; 4) the fact that the long-term flight may have had the same effect as punishment on the criminals; 5) the fact that the necessity for punishment decreases as time goes by; 6) the fact that the stability of the defendant and his social life should be promoted (Shin 2007, 354)

Shin mostly emphasizes how the passage of time may destroy the evidence and reduce the importance of punishment. Also, he focuses heavily on the rights of accused persons by considering the stability of their lives. The government officials constantly refer to these kinds of reasons in order to defend their positions whenever there are protests against the statute of limitations.

On the other hand, in a recent work, Sang-kyu Lim and Tae Young Ha have criticized the statute of limitations for several reasons. According to Ha, there are four main problems with the statute of limitations: “the fact that the current statute of limitations fails to respond to the problems with discovering substantive truth, protecting victims, preventing crimes, and defending the order in law” (Ha 2002, 534). He highlighted how the statute infringes on the right of victims and how it encourages more people to commit crime. In his research, Ha compares the statute of limitations of South Korea with that of Germany’s more extended statute, and he contends that Korea’s statute of limitations should be extended, because, in his words, “while human dignity should be ensured in any culture, the freedom of criminals after the expiration of the statute of limitations can not be counted as a basic human right” (Ha 2002, 546). Sang-kyu Lim extends the debate further when he writes, “the biggest reason for the opposition to the statute of limitations is that the criminal should not enjoy unreasonable and unjust benefits. Also, if the perpetrators of significant crimes, such as murder, are not punished, the public may think that the law is wrong” (Lim 2012, 306). In citing Germany’s statute as a good model, Lim proposes that South Korea should extend its statute to thirty years.    

The justifications and problems of the police can also be found in several articles. The support for the police is claimed by an anonymous police officer, who stated the following:

the problem with the Hwasung serial murder case [one of the three “Unresolved Criminal Cases”] was not the incompetent detectives or lack of scientific investigative technology, but the historical context. During the 1980s, the Korean government was concerned only with the repression of the protests against the regime and the overthrow of anti-government powers. The crimes were not the focus of their attention (Hong 2006).

During the 1980s, Chun Duhwan seized control of the country by military coup and maintained military and autocratic regime. The protests against the regime spread in all areas, and the police were busy repressing the protests under government order. Thus, the police could not focus entirely on crimes. Furthermore, the Hwasung Police Agency emphasized in its report on the Hwasung serial murder case that this case had involved the most police force in the shortest time ever, including two million police annually for six years; this mammoth task included checking 40,116 people’s fingerprints and investigating 21,280 individual people. By underscoring the scope of their efforts, the police imply that they did their best and that the problem was something other than the disorganization and corruption of the police system. In light of the historical situation during that time, the police claim that they did as much as they could.

On the other hand, the problems of the police system that hinder the promotion of justice are stated in the research conducted by Tae-kon Oh and the report made by the families of the victims of the three unresolved cases. The fathers of the victims of Five Children 1991 Murder case claimed:

One of the fathers was even suspected because of incompetent investigation of the police, although the evidence was obvious that the father didn’t murder the children. Also while excavating the skulls, the police damaged important evidence and before they had done proper investigation [they] prematurely announced that the children died due to hypothermia. This really gave us pain (Kim 2011).

Also, the police’s position that they put as much in as effort as they could can be viewed as compensatory and defensive because they may not want their problems and inefficiency to be exposed to the public. Furthermore, Oh especially focuses on the problem of the role of police in the current investigative system. He contends that the lack of independent investigative power of the police leads to “overall decrease of morale of the police, lack of mobility in investigation, and abuse of power by the prosecutors” (Oh 2005, 58). He explained that because the police need to follow complex process to be allowed to investigate, the whole investigation is delayed.

The Problems of the Statute of Limitations and Police System in The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases

Despite the justifications for the statute and police mentioned above, the problems with both were made obvious by the Three Unresolved Criminal Cases. The statute of limitations for the serial murder case in Hwasung expired on April 2, 2006. Despite the effort that the police had made, the culprit was not been captured. The most noticeable reason for this failure was that a number of forensic experts were extremely insufficient (Hong, 2006). Because of a lack of human resources, the evidence of DNA and fingerprints could not be scrutinized. Lack of accurate investigation also resulted in some suspects being falsely accused. One of the falsely accused suspects was harshly interrogated and tortured, and he committed suicide because of the trauma after the interrogation. He was a hardworking father and a kind husband of a law-abiding family. After his suicide, the family has been deeply affected (Park, 2012). The statute of limitations for the Hyoungho Lee kidnap and murder case expired on January 29, 2006. Although the culprit’s voice and handwriting were presented as evidence, the culprit was never captured. At one point, the police even found the culprit at a meeting place, but failed to capture him because of lack of communication between the officers. The statute of limitations for five children murder case expired on April 2, 2006. The police received the most blame for failure in this case. Right after the skulls of the five children were found, the police wrongly concluded in the report that the children died due to natural causes, even though the skulls were obviously marked by physical trauma. Also, before the arrival of forensic scientists, the police excavated the skulls from the crime scene recklessly and, as a result, they damaged important evidence.

After all these cases, the police were blamed for lack of proper organization and poor management of their investigation. Furthermore, as the statute expired for each case, the public expressed their opposition to the law. There have even been some protests arguing for the abolition of the statute of limitations.

The Lack of Validity of the Statute of Limitations and Solutions for the Betterment of the System

The two scholars mentioned above and the much of the South Korean public argue that the statute of limitations cannot be justified. Indeed, the statute of limitations, despite its extension to twenty-five years, blocks the promotion of justice for several reasons. One of the reasons for the enactment of the statute of limitations is “the fact that it is difficult to find substantive truth due to the destruction of evidence” (Shin 2007, 354). This argument is based on the assumption that the evidence may be destroyed after a long time. However, while investigating a crime, this assumption should not be accepted; investigation should be based on the solid facts because the purpose of the law is to ensure that justice has been served by punishing people who commit crimes. Therefore, “the substantive truth should be discovered, and the criminals should be punished, protecting infringed rights of the victims” (Ha 2002, 547). The rights of the victims should be protected by proper punishment of the criminals. Furthermore, it is possible that more crimes occur because criminals believe they can easily escape the boundary of the law by avoiding the police for several years until the statute of limitations is expired.

To fix such problems, Sang-kyu Lim and Tae-young Ha argue that the statute of limitations should be extended. But the extension of the statute is not enough given the inconsistency of the law. Instead, in my opinion, the statute of limitations should be abolished. The abolishment of the time limit for punishment may prevent potential crimes because criminals know that they cannot avoid punishment in any way. Justice should not have an expiration date. However, even when the statute is abolished, the limits on the investigation should exist to ensure the efficiency and proper distribution of human resources. As mentioned before, the human resources for investigation are lacking. If the investigation for certain cases continue regardless of the amount of time it takes to catch the culprits, potential investigations will be hindered due to the lack of human resource created by the extended investigation. Thus, in terms of investigation (as opposed to justice), the statute of limitations should exist.

The Inefficiency of the Police System and Solutions for the Betterment of the System

The police system during the periods when the cases occurred was very inferior. There was little proper equipment for scientific investigation, and the profiling technology was inadequate. However, these issues have been ameliorated as science and computer science has developed in South Korea. Still, there are some problems that exist even now. The most noticeable problem is the slow response of the police. This slow response is mostly caused by the police’s lack of ability to adapt to circumstances, and this lack of readiness is caused by improper training. The police officers do not receive training similar to real-life situations and they learn everything only through thick books or manuals (Kim 2008). Because of this, they often do not know what to do when there is a sudden emergency at the crime scene. Even recently there have been some cases in which the police failed to capture criminals even when the criminals were right in front of their eyes. The lack of training has led to the slow response and proved the inefficiency of the police system. Furthermore, currently police officers have no investigative power, and they can investigate only under the supervision of public prosecutors. Because they need to follow complex process to be allowed to conduct certain investigations, the investigation is delayed and the opportunity to capture criminal decreases.

In order to solve these problems, advanced training and the independent investigative power of the police should be ensured. In addition to the textbooks and manuals, training based on real-life situations should be a perquisite for officers. The training should be focused on the improvement of the ability to react instantly. Training should emphasize unexpected changes so that police can practice beforehand. Furthermore, the police should have independent investigative power. The independent investigative power of the police will prevent the corrupt prosecutors abusing their power. Also by having independent investigative power, the police can save more time for investigation, and more efficient investigation can go on. The investigative power of the prosecutors should still exist. Like the checks and balance system of American government, the police and prosecutors should check each other to prevent the abuse of the power of each institution. To prevent the government’s control of the investigation, the police should have independent investigative power.


Last month, during the government’s inspection of the administration of the Supreme Court in South Korea, a key statistic that shows the rapid increase of the rate of unresolved criminal cases was announced: since 2008, the number of unresolved criminal cases has increased by 180%. This accumulation of unresolved criminal cases will continue and the current legal and police system are certainly factors that contribute to this situation. “The Three Unresolved Criminal Cases” have cast doubt on the validity of the statute of limitations and the efficiency of the police system. These cases clearly reflect that the statute of limitations is morally invalid because it fails to protect the victims and it enables more crimes to occur unpunished. The cases also reveal the inefficiency of the police system, which is largely caused by the lack of training and independent investigative power.

Parsing the statute of limitations into separate terms of punishment and investigation satisfies both parties of the debate. The abolishment of the limits in the punishment can ensure the rights of victims and it may also help prevent potential criminals by intensifying the repercussions of committing a crime. On the other hand, the limits on the investigation can prevent the inefficient allocation of human resources. Furthermore, reforming the police system through improved training and independent investigative power will help ensure the promotion of justice and fairness in South Korea.





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Kim, Ye-hyeon. The parents of five children, "Please, just let us know why did you kill them". Joongang News (23 Feb. 2011).

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Park, Haeng Ryeol, “A Study on the Reform of the Police Investigation System on Serious Violent Crime.” Korean Academy of Public Safety and Criminal Justice. 39 (2010).

Park, Jin. “The Suicide of Falsely Accused Suspect. A Nightmare Still Goes on…”. Pressian News (16 Oct 2012).

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Yun, Jee-Young. “The ways to improve the statute of limitations on the criminal procedure law.” Korean Journal of Criminal Law. 24.1 (2012).


Header image credit: Ksiom

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