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Self-Defense Laws in South Korea: A Simple Guide

self defense korea

South Korean self-defense laws are often criticized for their rigid interpretations and perceived lack of flexibility. This guide seeks to clarify these laws by combining straightforward explanations and a plain-language interpretation of the rules.

I. What is "Self-Defense" Under Korean Law?

Self-defense in South Korea is defined under Criminal Act Article 21. It is considered an act to prevent impending and unjust infringement of one’s or another person’s legal interests. However, it's essential to note that self-defense in Korea is typically about neutralizing the threat, not counterattacking.

II. What is a "Preventative Act"?

A preventative act is about stopping a threat before it escalates, within reasonable limits. This means that you may not cause excessive injury to your attacker to prevent bodily harm.

Unlike many other countries, a weapon cannot be used to prevent an unarmed attacker.

A prevenetative act must be:

  • Intended to stop a threat before it escalates.

  • Proportionate to the level of threat, ensuring it does not exceed necessary bounds (i,e., you may not cause more injury to an attacker than he/she intends to do to you).

III. When is Self-Defense Justified?

Self-defense is only justified under specific conditions that emphasize immediacy (response time) and proportionality (amount of force).

  • Self-defense is justified in the face of an immediate and unjust threat.

  • Self-defense must be immediate; it cannot be done for revenge or to prevent a suspected future attack.

IV. When is Self-Defense Not Justified?

Certain actions invalidate the claim of self-defense, especially those initiating conflict (e,g., throwing the first punch).

You may not claim self-defense if you do the following acts:

  • Initiate a fight or provoke an attack voids the right to claim self-defense.

  • Use excessive force or use preemptive strikes, even in response to verbal threats.

  • Defense must not be more aggressive than the assault. Excessive force, particularly using a weapon or causing significant harm, is not justified.

V. Legal Actions for Victims and Attackers

For Victims

  • Legal Recourse: Victims can file a criminal complaint and pursue civil damages.

  • Compensation and Settlement Money (합의금): Victims are entitled to compensation for damages. Settlements can be negotiated between the two parties.

  • Restitution: Courts may order attackers to cover medical expenses, lost wages, etc.

For Attackers/Unjustified Self-Defense

Penalties range from fines to imprisonment, based on the severity of the attack.

  • Fines: For minor assaults, fines up to 10,000,000 KRW (~7,596 USD).

  • Imprisonment: First time offenders may be placed on legal watch (probation) for up to 2 years. For serious injuries or weapon use, imprisonment ranges from 1 to a maximum 15 years, depending on the severity (outlined in Articles 257, 258, 258-2).

Notable Points

  • Severity of Punishment: Based on injury extent. Injuries requiring over three weeks of treatment may incur severe penalties.

  • Settlement Money (합의금): Settlements can lead to reduced sentences or dropped charges if agreed upon by the victim and court.

VI. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What counts as excessive force?

What if I am charged with excessive self-defense?

What if both parties are injured? 

Can self-defense be claimed inside homes? 

What are the consequences of unjustified self-defense? 

What legal actions can victims take?

Will self-defense laws in Korea change in the future?

Understanding self-defense laws in Korea is crucial for both residents and visitors. It's always advisable to avoid confrontations and seek assistance from law enforcement when necessary. The best course of action in potential conflict situations remains to walk away or contact the police. The current legal framework in Korea emphasizes a restrained approach to self-defense, which has led to debates and calls for reform.

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