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The Crossbow Incident: A South Korean's breaking point

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.

March 08, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Former professor Kim Myung-ho of South Korea published a book about his crossbow confrontation with a judge.
Former professor Kim Myung-ho of South Korea published a book about his… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

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 Myung-ho a terrorist during his 2007 criminal trial, in which he contended that he had meant only to scare Judge Park Hong-woo. 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.

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