Killing Our Citizens

Several years ago a man was shot in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. He was shot by South Korean soldiers after repeated warnings, as he tried to swim across the Imjin river (BBC article). I find this story  disturbing on two levels. One is of course that a person was killed, there should always be a moment to reflect when we are faced with a death of a fellow citizen. However the second is a more subtle point, I have brought up this story with several friends and there is a very little sympathy for this man. I find this hard to comprehend. He broke the law in entering the DMZ, he knew those laws, but I still think we should stand up collectively and denounce this act.

I have made this point to many people, but the law does not decide what is right from wrong, it is a rough set of guidelines for conducting ourselves in a society. For instance, if you drive through a red traffic light to block another car from hitting a child who happens to have walked onto the road, you would have technically broken the law. But I doubt a judge would punish you for this infraction. We do not know the particulars of this recent case, but can you imagine a scenario where this man really deserved to be shot in the back and killed?

Legally this soldier was following orders. But I don’t think the legality defines the rightness or wrongness of this or any situation. If I didn’t drive my car passed the red light to protect the helpless child on the road, I would not be held to account in a legal court, but I would still have done the wrong thing in not helping the child.

Why do we find it so easy to relinquish our autonomous moral character to legal (civilised) conformity. Its a bit like Milgrom’s Experiment. If you’re not familiar with this, it is the infamous psychological experiment whereby a volunteer is persuaded to inflict pain on another person. Through obedience to authority the majority of participants are quite willing to inflict life threatening pain. This explains how a soldier is stripped of their critical thinking and could thus make such a call. But it does not explain why we would have such a deadly legal framework in place, even in a place such as the DMZ.

Asked if the soldiers’ response was excessive, Brigadier General Cho Jong-sul at a  briefing said: “It was legitimate. In a combat area like this, anyone who ignores our soldiers’ repeated warnings and tries to run away to North Korea will get shot.” (

I think it is time to question legitimacy and this raises the question of civil disobedience. Right now we are just talking about this issue. But lets say we had time to do something about it. For example, “in the US the state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s supplying ammo for the Vietnam conflict; but the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because it’s legal and proper and should be done. It’s proper to carry out actions that will prevent the criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a traffic ordinance in order to prevent the kid from being killed.” –  from the Chomsky-Foucault debate ’71.

2 thoughts on “Killing Our Citizens

  1. Killing as an immediate verdict by law is not supportable but for this case, which includes North Korea, as very well known by its terrifyingly mad leader, the consequences of letting that guy swim to the other end might be worse than we are willing to imagine. Assume that guy is allowed to reach the North Korean shores and somehow caused a terrorist attack. It might be a little grenade or shooting a North Korean soldier, or even a weird sort of disobedience. I wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea takes this as an initiation of a war. Is this a risk that South Korean army would be willing to take to save a rebellious/dumb man’s life?
    You know me, I am not a person that easily accepts the validity of an authority or someone automatically agrees with the rules or laws. But there are times and situations that if someone stupidly goes against the tide, should be ready for the consequences. Also, swimming through the North/South Korean border as an act of suicide? Give it a thought.


    1. Thanks for the reply. The subsequent actions of the man do indeed pose a risk. But this is consequentialist reasoning, that never sits well with me. Sure, we could weigh the risks associated with allowing the man to cross into North Korea, and explore hypothetical scenarios involving the next great war between these two sides. But tell me if this is fundamentally different to the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the pursuit of a speedy and peaceful end to WWII. In both cases people’s lives have been used against their willing to justify someone else’s goals, which are a reaction to the world as they understand it. Ok, this is an extreme example, I use it only to point out the question; fundamentally how are we to weight the possible outcomes and risks with our basic notions humanity and human rights?

      This is usually boils down to a choice between deontological and utilitarian reasoning. Ie whether the rightness or wrongness is contained within the action itself or in the consequences of that action. I always tend to favour the former rather than the later.

      So I still think it is wrong to shoot a man in the back who is just trying to go from point A to point B. The threshold for taking someone’s life must be higher than just hypothetical what-ifs. If you see someone running with a grenade towards a group of children, then sure, but there has to be some level of certainty, no?

      I paraphrase my favourite philosopher on the subject
      “Don’t treat people as a means to an end, because people are an ends in themselves.”

      Liked by 1 person

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