A fired professor who went to prison for the attempted murder of a judge has become a hero to some South Koreans.
A new movie, "Unbowed," tells the story.
Former professor Kim MyungHo of South Korea published a book about his crossbow confrontation with a judge. (Matt Douma, For The Times / March 8, 2012)
By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
March 8, 2012, 4:31 p.m. | Reporting from Seoul -
It began when an out-of work math professor who had just lost a decision in civil court confronted the judge with a crossbow.
Now, five years later, the entire South Korean judiciary system is under siege, and the professor, free after serving time in prison for attempted murder, has become an underground hero of sorts.
Prosecutors called Kim MyungHo a terrorist during
his 2007 criminal trial, in which he contended that he had meant only to scare Judge Park Hongwoo. The judge had just ruled against him in a wrongful-termination lawsuit and was returning to his apartment when the attack took place.
But for some, Kim is a Korean version of the Michael Douglas character in the 1993 film "Falling Down," an average citizen who became unhinged by his anger at society.
That perspective has been enhanced by a popular new film based on the case. "Unbowed" has become a surprise box office hit, the third-highest-grossing film this year in South Korea.
Legal experts say it has attracted 3.3 million moviegoers by tapping into long-brewing public resentment toward judges, who are viewed by many here as aloof and biased in favor of the nation's elite.
A recent survey of 1,100 South Koreans by Good Law, a civil watchdog group that monitors legal professionals, found that 77% of respondents had lost faith in the judiciary. More than 80% said the success of "Unbowed" is directly related to the public's mistrust of judges.
The film's popularity has unleashed a flurry of newspaper articles with headlines such as "Hard time for judges: Would humble gestures help ?" It has also caused concern among court officials in Seoul that it could encourage further violence against judges.
A series of public forums has followed, including one hosted by Seoul's Central District Court that was meant to clear the air between judges and citizens. Instead, several people in the packed auditorium tried to rush the stage. "Thugs! Robbers!" one woman shouted. Another called out, "Criminals!" The moderator tried to calm the crowd: "It seems that all these things that have built up inside you are coming out today."
Seoul National University law professor Cho Guk, who was at the session, said public resentment has been fueled by judicial rulings that seem to favor the privileged.
As an example, he pointed to a Seoul appeals court's suspension of an embezzlement conviction against Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo. The court cited what it said was Chung's crucial role in helping the South Korean economy rebound from the Asian financial crisis, Cho said.
"People see how a corporate CEO who embezzles millions receives a suspended sentence while a normal businessman gets sent to prison for stealing a fraction of that. Judges need to make more effort at issuing fairer judgments," Cho told the gathering.
"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.'"
"Unbowed" screenwriter Han Hyun-keun, who met with Kim in prison, calls him "an honest man who reached his breaking point."
Kim was fired after pointing out a question on his university's entrance exam that he said was unfair. A dispute ensued and the school fired him, saying he had criticized colleagues who wrote the exam.
"It was wrong for him to take the crossbow to the judge's house," Han said. "But the central facet of the movie isn't about that action; it's about the system that might lead him to such an act. South Korea is improving. But judges still have incredible power."
Kim, 55, said in a recent interview that the movie accurately portrays his battle with the South Korean justice system. "It's realistic; that's why people want to see it," he said. "It portrays my war with the courts."
After four years in prison, Kim is apparently unrepentant.
"Judges believe they are above the law," he said as he sat in a Seoul coffeehouse. "They're unchallenged, like gangsters, fearing no one. I thought this judge needed to feel fear."
Kim had represented himself in Park's courtroom for six months, watching his case to get his job back crumble under what he believed were nonsensical rulings. Well before the verdict, the small, resolute instructor staged one-man protests outside the courthouse and wrote letters of complaint to the Supreme Court.
He also sought less direct emotional outlets for his anger. He considered breaking dishes, he said, but instead bought a $400 crossbow to shoot on weekends.
He decided to confront Park at home the night the judge issued his final decision. Kim recalls waiting in the half-shadows of an apartment building stairwell, crossbow in hand.
When Park arrived, a fight ensued and, according to prosecutors, Park was wounded by a projectile fired from the crossbow.
"I was very angry," Kim recalled. "I didn't have a clear mind, but I knew that I was talking to a wall in court. I wanted to confront him and ask: 'Why did you do this? Why didn't you observe the law?'"
Bystanders quickly detained Kim.
At trial, the prosecution produced a bloody shirt and undergarments they said belonged to the judge, saying that Park had been injured during the scuffle. The defense attorney argued that the blood was fabricated and that the stains didn't match up with the judge's supposed stomach wound, Kim said.
Thanks to the movie, Kim is getting a second public hearing. A Korean Herald feature says, "The film reignited the long-held public suspicion that the crossbow trial might have been biased and faulty."
The judge Park Hongwoo has refused to speak publicly about the movie. During Kim's criminal trial, Park hypocritically asked the court to show leniency to the professor, citing his emotional state at the time of the attack. "I hope such an incident will never happen again to anyone," Park told the court. "But there is a saying, 'Hate the crime, but don't hate the man.'"
Kim remains jobless, and, because of his status as a convicted felon, he was recently denied a U.S. visa to visit his son in Los Angeles.
He still defends himself to anyone who will listen, and is hawking a self-published book called "Judges, Who Do You Think You Are?" The cover shows Kim with a code of law in one hand, a crossbow in the other.
At the same time, he says he'll never again stalk a judge.
"Once is enough," Kim said. "Anyway, it didn't work. I never got my answers."
Andrew in Orange County at 12:10 AM March 09, 2012
I don't condone his actions but I understand his frustration. The legal system in the U.S. is also a joke. The legal system here is always stacked on the side of rich people over working stiffs. The U.S. should allow him in this country to see his son. "Unbowed" should get a release here in the U.S. I'm very sure this film will find a large audience here as well.
Woohae Cho for The International Herald TribuneOn March 11, 2012, Professor Kim MyungHo, left, watched Judge Park Hongwoo leave the apartment building where he aimed a crossbow at the judge five years ago. Just before this photo was taken, Judge Park came out of the building's elevator and the two made eye contact briefly.
By CHOE SANG-HUN Published: March 12, 2012
SEOUL, South Korea - The image on the cover of Kim MyungHo’s self-published book neatly captures his attitude toward the South Korean judiciary. It shows Mr. Kim, a former mathematics professor, standing defiantly, a law book in one hand and a crossbow in the other.
His book’s title: “Judges, Who Do You Think You Are?”
Mr. Kim’s outrage has resonated with South Koreans, with a movie about his dispute with the South Korean judicial system selling more than 3.5 million tickets since it was released in January. And Mr. Kim’s crossbow is more than a prop.
He actually brandished one in a January 2007 confrontation with an appeals court judge who had rejected Mr. Kim’s claim that Sungkyunkwan University had wrongfully terminated him. At some point in the showdown, an arrow flew. Mr. Kim said no one was hit. But the judge, Park Hong-woo, said he was wounded, and Mr. Kim was sentenced to four years in prison.
Editorial writers and Internet bloggers have labeled Mr. Kim a “terrorist” whose “quixotic delusion” led him to shoot Judge Park. But some South Koreans have likened Mr. Kim to Robin Hood, a testimony to the depth of the antijudiciary sentiment in South Korea.
The movie about his fight, “Unbowed,” has revived the controversy. “It was like setting a match to gasoline,” said Kim Dae-in, president of the Good Law, a civic group that monitors the justice system. “Mistrust of the judiciary has reached an explosive point. Actions like Mr. Kim’s can happen again any time.” A survey by the group recently found that 77 percent of respondents agreed that court trials were “unfair.”
Since the film’s release, the Supreme Court has lamented that a “fictional” movie was “inciting unfounded mistrust of the justice system.” And the conservative daily newspaper Dong-A Ilbo said in an editorial, “Moviegoers flocking to a film that glorifies a character like him raises concerns about the dignity of our society.”
Kim MyungHo, 54, is ready to fight back.
“To those who call me a terrorist, I ask, ‘Was the French Revolution terrorism?’ ” he said in an interview. “What I did in 2007 was righteous rebellion.”
And the Korean Bar Association said, “The fact that, within a week of its release, a million people went to see a movie that encourages resistance to the judiciary calls for soul-searching and a change in attitude.”
The fight is rooted in Kim MyungHo’s firing by Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul in 1996. He sued for wrongful termination, and Judge Park ultimately rejected that claim. After months of picketing courthouses and sending hundreds of letters of complaint to the Supreme Court, Mr. Kim said he lost all hope of justice and decided to deliver the judge “a shock.”
So on the evening of Jan. 15, 2007, Mr. Kim confronted Judge Park as he was about to take an elevator to his apartment in Seoul. “You call that a verdict?” Mr. Kim said, aiming his loaded crossbow at the judge.
Kim Do-hyun, a law professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said that, while he found it difficult to dispute the verdict against Mr. Kim, “The problem was the way the trial was handled.”
“Judges are so disconnected from the rest of the public that they live in their own world,” he said. “They often make rulings that people just can’t understand.”
Mistrust of judges is hardly new in South Korea. Billionaire tycoons convicted of embezzlement or tax evasion rarely spend a day in jail, and a study by Professor Kim of Dongguk University found that 82 percent of people in civil cases were not represented by lawyers, mostly because they could not afford one.
Legal experts trace the growing public resentment to what they say is a highly insular and hierarchical culture in the justice system. Until this year, all judges were selected based on their scores on an annual written examination, regardless of formal education, and then prepared for the bench at a government training center.
“Because judges aren’t elected and we don’t have a jury system, the public has no power of oversight,” said Kim Dae-in of the Good Law group. “The whole system is vulnerable to corruption and mistrust.”
The judiciary has begun experimenting with trials by jury. It is also phasing out the old hiring system, replacing it with formal law schools and a new bar exam.
Kim MyungHo, the crossbow-wielding mathematician who is now out of prison and still out of a job, remains defiant. His book published last month by his own company, Crossbow Kim MyungHo, because no mainstream publisher would take it warns, “Judges, if you screw up like that, you may get whacked.”
“What I did was not a crime,” he said in the interview. “I am filled with hatred for judges who are worse than gangsters or the Mafia. I will continue to work to reveal what they really are.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2012, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Out of Jail, Ex-Professor And His Crossbow Fight South Korea’s Judiciary.
뉴욕타임스가 영화 ‘부러진 화살’의 실제 주인공 김명호 교수의 석궁 사건이 한국 사회에 일으킨 논란을 재조명했다. 뉴욕타임스는 ‘공론(여론)의 법정에서 패한 한국의 판사들’(South Korean Judges Losing in Court of Public Opinion)이라는 제하의 12일자 서울발 기사에서 최근 출간된 김명호 교수의 저서
‘판사, 니들이 뭔데?’와 흥행작 ‘부러진 화살’을 자세히 다뤘다.
오른손에 법전을 왼손엔 석궁을 든 김명호 교수의 책 표지를 묘사하는 것으로 기사를 시작한 뉴욕타임스는 “메이저 신문을 포함한 김교수의 비판자들은 돈키호테식의 망상때문에 석궁 사건을 저지른 ‘테러리스트’라고 규정하는 반면, 다른 한편에선 사법부를 불신하는 한국인들의 뿌리깊은 정서를 증언하는 ‘로빈 후드’로 김 교수를 비유한다”고 보도했다. 이와 함께 최근 법률소비자연맹의 대국민 설문조사에 따르면, 77%의 응답자들이 “법원의 재판이 불공정하다”는 의견을 냈다는 소식도 전했다. 아울러 “김교수와 사법시스템 간의 충돌을 영화화한 ‘부러진 화살’은 지난 1월 개봉해 350만명 이상의 관객을 동원했다”며 “사법부(에 대한 불신)를 건드리거나 난타하는 일련의 영화들이 최근 박스오피스에서 좋은 성적을 거두고 있다”고 덧붙였다.
김교수는 인터뷰에서 “나를 테러리스트라고 부르는 사람들에게 프랑스 혁명이 테러였냐고 묻고 싶다”며 “2007년 내가 한 일은 정의로운 반란이었다”고 말했다.
뉴욕타임스는 영화의 개봉과 흥행으로 잊혀졌던 5년전 석궁사건이 다시금 한국사회의 이슈가 된 상황이나 영화를 둘러싼 사법부와 시민단체, 국민들의 반응을 자세히 전하며 한발 더 나가 한국 사법시스템에 대한 문제와 국민들의 불만도 진단했다.
뉴욕타임스는 한국에서 사법부에 대한 불신은 어제 오늘의 이야기가 아니라며 “횡령이나 세금 포털죄를 저지른 거물 기업인들은 대형 로펌의 변호를 받아 단 하루의 실형도 받는 경우가 거의 없는 반면, 동국대 김도현 교수의 조사에 따르면 민사소송에 처한 82%의 시민들은 재정적인 능력이 없어 법률서비스를 받지 못한다”고 전했다.