Public distrust in the judiciary runs deep in Korean society. Judges and prosecutors are among the least respected groups by the people.
There is a Korean saying that “If you are rich, you are innocent, and if poor, you are guilty.” It reflects the underlying public sentiment that the law is unfairly generous to the rich and harsher to the poor.
A low-budget film, based on a true story about a former professor who challenged the authority of the judiciary, is fueling public distrust in the legal system.
Both the Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court, annoyed by the movie “Unbowed,” have attempted to persuade the people into believing the court rulings were not as unfair as depicted in the film. But it has failed to turn the tide.
The film, with the Korean title “A Broken Arrow,” brought to light a controversial case that might have been forgotten otherwise.
It has rekindled a public debate on what is known as a case of“crossbow terrorism.” The movie features college math professor Kim Myung-ho, convicted of shooting a crossbow at a judge for a verdict against him, in a suit he filed to be reinstated in his job.
Despite the ministry’s efforts to publicize the fact the judiciary was misrepresented in the film, millions of viewers are apparently sympathizing with the professor and expressing indignation against the legal system.
The extent of the fairness of the movie aside, it obviously succeeded in putting the issue of fair trials on the table.
Why is the low-budget movie appealing to so many viewers? Of course, veteran actors played their roles superbly ― the arrogant presiding judge so obnoxious and the strong-headed professor quite likable.
On the big screen, the judges and prosecutors are projected as “the ugly” who abuse their power to crush all reasonable requests from the defendant, and the professor and his lawyer as “the good” who fall victim to their authoritative foes.
Internet and social networking services have been flooded with messages critical of the judiciary. It’s not strange at all that people sympathize with the ruled.
The case has been long closed and the professor has already served his four-year prison term.
But some mysteries surrounding the case still linger ― why the broken arrow fired from the crossbow was missing; why the presiding judges rejected a request from the defendant to conduct a basic forensic test to match the blood on the clothes to that of the judge; and why the judge’s shirt didn’t have any traces of blood while his suit vest and underwear did.
These questions will most likely remain unanswered.
Still, the question why the judiciary has lost public trust needs to be seriously considered.
The professor says that his act was a legitimate self-defense as he was defenseless against the judiciary which he said was determined from the first place to punish him for his daring challenge to its authority.
In the movie, the professor (Ahn Sung-ki), was repeatedly denied chances to speak by the presiding judge during the hearing, and shouts at him, “This is not a trial but a dictatorship!”
As he said, people have the impression that judicial officers are unforgiving, high-handed rulers, especially to those without power or wealth.
One of the key factors undermining the public trust in the judicial system is “jeongwan yeu,” an old, die-hard practice where retired judges and prosecutors become lawyers and receive favorable treatment from their former colleagues.
What if the professor had been represented by a group of lawyers from a top-notch law firm? With expensive lawyers with a relationship with the judge, he might have received a different verdict.
Over the past few months, there have been a slew of reports about corrupt prosecutors, lawyers and judges, including the female prosecutor who received a Chanel bag and use of a Mercedes-Benz sedan leased by a law firm in return for influence peddling in court rulings.
These corrupt prosecutors and judges will quit their job for their wrongdoings. However, after a short hiatus, they will be return as lawyers. And they will benefit from the customary “jeongwan yeu” practices.
The film only cost about 1.5 billion won ($1.3 million) to make, but has grossed 20 billion won in the three weeks after its release, with the number of viewers on track to break the 3-million mark this weekend.
As a box office sensation, “Broken Arrow” hit the bull’s eye at the heart of people’s hopes that the judiciary will reform itself to move closer to the people. The film reflects a growing call for change in the judiciary. Only by humbly accepting this call will it be able to win back the broken public trust.
By Cho Jae-hyon
City Editor(Korea Times)