Heinous crimes are committed all around the world, and the law enforcement and judicial systems of each country are tasked with solving and prosecuting as many of them as they can. Although all lawkeepers operate under the basic umbrella of catching the bad guys and punishing them, the ways in which they do so can vary widely. South Korea has a longtime practice and unique tool in the investigation and prosecution of their more serious crimes: crime reenactment.
Police stations and courtrooms all over the world have seen various attempts at re-creating crime scenes, from diagrams to dioramas and elaborate computer illustrations. But South Korea takes a different tack; physically making the accused themselves reenact their alleged crime(s), on location and all.
The idea behind crime reenactments is two-fold: to obtain any details that may be remembered or revealed by the accused during the reenactment that have been missed otherwise, and also to make it clear that a confession was not forced or coerced. Physically visiting the crime scene and reenacting the crime is not something someone could do casually or convincingly if they didn’t actually commit the act, or were not at the very least present when someone else did.
Those are the intended purposes, but the actual effect of a crime reenactment in South Korea is that it becomes a media frenzy. What’s juicier for a front-page headline than a picture of an accused murderer, on location at the actual scene of a murder, miming their fatal chokehold or thrust of a knife?
In crime reenactments, South Korean police physically transport the accused to the scene. Because these are (allegedly) violent criminals, they are bound with handcuffs and also potentially body chains and rope. For the media to have access to someone who is no doubt already making headlines if they’ve been accused of a deadly crime, essentially playing dress-up as Hannibal Lecter, is exciting for them.
Then, miming and using dummies, mannequins, and whatever other props are necessary, they reenact their crimes, all in front of flashing cameras and screaming crowds. Some have suggested that even criminals shouldn’t have to endure this, as it can certainly be called “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Jeong Won-seob, a South Korean man who was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a schoolgirl and has since had that conviction overturned, recalls having to reenact his alleged crime to the LA Times: “My face was exposed. There were dozens of people screaming. Someone yelled, ‘Kill this guy!’ I wanted to disappear. I couldn’t lift my face to meet people’s gaze. It’s beyond torture. It kills a person two or three times.”
A “perp walk” in the US is the closest thing, but that’s literally just a walk and there are ways to shield the criminals’ faces and protect their identities, and to make them speedy or avoid them altogether. A South Korean reenactment, even when the criminal is allowed to wear a partial face mask, allows for the open incrimination in the court of public opinion by anyone who cares to attend the well-publicized events, with identification of the accused.
When a reenactment occurs as part of an initial investigation, it may be someone who has not even yet been formally charged with the crime, which is immensely more damaging but still part of the practice. Police say they’re under pressure from the public and victims’ families to show suspects’ faces, and although some police officials say they’d rather conduct them in private, public reenactments help the police strive for transparency to foster trust in the public eye.
In cases where the original crime scene has been significantly altered or demolished, South Korean authorities actually spend significant amounts of money and time constructing detailed sets to resemble the scene, as in this recent news report. Because the set was constructed at the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office, it was closed to the public. But the media still gets access, resulting in viewers watching at home like it was any other crime drama.