K Drama

An Intro to Korea’s Juvenile Justice System

Yet another Korean drama has debuted on Netflix’s international charts! Korean drama Juvenile Justice offers rare insight into South Korea’s criminal justice system. Watching the show, the first thing I noticed was how different proceedings were compared to those in my home country. Not going to lie, it made the show a little bit difficult to understand at first. So, here is some much needed background on South Korea’s juvenile criminal justice system. 

Introduction

Juvenile Justice is a courtroom drama that follows cutthroat judge Sim Eun-seok as she tries juvenile criminals. Juvenile Justice showcases adolescent criminal cases. However, it does not actually cover criminal court proceedings.

As a result of the South Korean Juvenile Protection Act, although a minor may be guilty of committing a crime, they are not always charged with committing a crime. The main character is a judge who works under the Juvenile Department of the Family Court. And so, the cases she handles are actually not criminal cases, they are protection cases.

The Juvenile Act in Korea

Simply put, the juvenile act created a separate criminal justice system for minors. In recognizing that children may not be developmentally capable of understanding the implications of their actions, they are not tried in the same way as adults. You can Click Here to read the Juvenile Act for yourself.

Who is Considered a Juvenile Offender Under Korean Law

The Juvenile Act applies to two main groups. The first is children between the Korean ages of 10(8-9 international age) and 14 (12-13 international age) who have committed crimes.

The second is juveniles over the age of 14 who are at risk of committing crimes. The second group includes:

  • Children at risk of or known to have joined gangs
  • Runaways
  • Minors prone to minor substance abuse (alcohol)
  • Juveniles who are subject to domestic abuse
  • Adolecents who are at risk of causing public disturbances

However, there are two circumstances that would cause cases involving minors no longer fall under Family court.

First, Is cases where the offender is over 14 evidence of criminal acts is found. The second circumstance is if the child under investigation turns 19 (17 or 18 international age) during the course of the trial. 

If all of the conditions of the juvenile protection act are met, then court proceedings can continue as protection cases.

Protection Cases

The protection case system was designed under the assumption that children commit crimes as a result circumstances beyond their control. This includes factors like domestic violence or mental disorders.

And so, the main role of protection cases is to evaluate the child’s character, home environment, and mental state. Once a judge feels they understand the juvenile’s situation, they will then mandate steps for rehabilitation. 

As seen in Juvenile Justice, the role of the presiding judge is extensive. It goes way beyond what you would see in most other countries. They don’t just preside over court hearings and issue sentencing based on the results of the trial. Korean juvenile justice judges are responsible for getting to know and monitoring the children they put on trial.

Juvenile Justice System Fun Facts

There Are No Jurries

South Korea jury trials are extremely rare. In 2008, Korea began experimenting with jury based trails, but they were largely deemed unsuccessful. Instead, Korean court cases are ruled on by a single judge, or in more serious cases, a panel of three judges.  Nevertheless, there has yet to be a jury trial of a minor

Juvenile Justice Judge = Social Worker?

A few episodes in, I couldn’t help but question if the court system in South Korea was incredibly biased. The same judges that issued sentencing also investigated cases and personally approached people involved in the trial.

In protection cases, a single judge is put in charge of a case. The outcome of the trial and the mandated rehabilitation mainly depends on an assessment of the child’s character and the chances of them committing future crimes.

And so, it is actually the judges responsibility to get to know the child on a personal level. Otherwise, they can’t judge if the child is at risk.

Additionally, the presiding judge can order juvenile investigators to investigate the child themselves, their guardians, and witnesses. Which, is one area where the drama may not be totally consistant with real life. No investigating for the judges, there are seperate people for that.

The Role of Guardians

In Korean courts, instead of lawyers representing their clients, defendants are appointed legal assistants. Assistants are often lawyers, but they don’t have to be. In juvenile court, legal assistants can also be the child’s guardian. Guardians can be parents, teachers, or any mentor.

Their role is to support the defendant, offer an additional perspective, and help them understand proceedings – not to present evidence. In Korea, separate investigators collect evidence and present it to judges privately. 

The Right to State Your Opinion

Anyone in the courtroom is actually permitted to state their opinions on evidence that is presented. This includes other judges, legal assistants, guardians, lawyers and the defendant themselves.

However, victims of crimes are usually not present in the courtroom. They have the right to come and speak in the courtroom. But, after that they are often in the dark until sentencing.

As for the defendant in the courtroom, they have a much more active role than in the legal system I grew up seeing in the United States. They often address the judge directly and it is normal for the judge to ask them questions throughout the trial.

Conclusion

I hope that this article can help you understand the Korean justice system a little bit better before you get started with Juvenile Justice. This is the first major Korean courtroom drama to be aired. However, with stories as interesting as this, it’s bound to become a rapidly expanding genre.

Looking for more K-drama to binge on Netflix? If you liked Juvenile Justice, you’ll live this action packed drama about Korea’s criminal underworld. Click Here to read about My Name.

🇨🇦 🇺🇸 Kizzy Kuhn

Senior Editor @KoreabyMe. Lover of fashion, art and FOOD!!