Korean Law

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POSTED: October 23, 2018

According to the Guardian today,

Canada became the second country in the world to legalise recreational marijuana last week, but for South Koreans hoping to try the drug, their hopes have just gone up in smoke. Police in South Korea have repeatedly told their citizens not to partake in this newfound freedom, with the latest warning coming this week.

“Weed smokers will be punished according to the Korean law, even if they did so in countries where smoking marijuana is legal. There won’t be an exception,” said Yoon Se-jin, head of the narcotics crime investigation division at Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency, according to the Korea Times.

So far, so authoritarian. However, the next paragraph says something that seems to me to have very interesting implications:

South Korean law is based on the concept that laws made in Seoul still apply to citizens anywhere in the world, and violations, even while abroad, can technically lead to punishment when they return home.

If I understand this correctly (and if Benjamin Haas, the Guardian reporter, has outlined the issue correctly) South Korean law does not take geography as its basis, but citizenship.

Every other legal jurisdiction that I have heard of bases itself on geography. You may not, for example, drink alcohol under the age of twenty five in this state, defining state as a geographical area with clear boundaries on a map. You may in other states. In a similar way two people of the same gender may marry in Britain, whatever their citizenship or nationality, and British institutions will recognise their marriage whatever any people or institutions in other geographical areas decide about its legality in their part of the world.

The Korean model makes it impossible to become a South Korean expat, in the way that we think of British or Finnish expats, since technically, even in Ottawa, you would live under Korean law, and could expect punishment if you returned home for acts that the Canadian government defined as perfectly legal at the time you performed them.

This difference has immense implications for what we think about the relationship between citizens, social institutions, the state, and the legal framework that adjudicates between them.