Supreme court to intensify sentencing guidelines on technology theft

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Jan. 22, 2024 8:00PM GMT+9

South Korea’s efforts to grapple with technology theft takes a huge leap forward as the country’s top court seeks to introduce harsher sentencing guidelines that could increase punishments meted out to convicted offenders.

On January 19, the Sentencing Commission, which is affiliated with the Supreme Court, disclosed the result of two plenary sessions held on January 8 and 18 in which an agreement was reached to revise sentencing guidelines on crimes related to technology theft.

According to the draft, the Commission decided to insert a new sentencing guideline to enable the court to impose a maximum of 18 years of imprisonment on individuals found guilty of stealing national core technologies and exporting them abroad. The South Korean government designated 75 technologies, including semiconductors and displays, as national core technologies that, should they be stolen and put into the hands of foreign actors, could cause severe damage to the nation’s security and economy. In March of last year, South Korea’s intelligence agency identified 93 cases of industrial technology theft having occurred between 2018 to 2022, with one-third of these cases being classified as involving a national core technology.

The Commission also decided to increase the number of recommended years of imprisonment from 9 to 15 for those found guilty of stealing industrial technologies and putting them into foreign hands. Although the new sentencing guidelines do not act as mandatory injunctions, the flexibility they afford can impact court decisions, as judges will have to justify their rulings if their verdict exceeds the recommendations set down in the sentencing guidelines.

The top court has been looking into the modification of the sentencing guidelines on technology theft since June of 2023, following the Korean Intellectual Property Office and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office submitting the proposal last April. The two organizations argued whether the level of punishment was insufficient considering the severity of the damage caused by such criminal activities. In a press release, the two organizations stated that among the 445 decisions reached in the court from 2019 to 2022 involving the crime of technology theft, that only 47 defendants were sentenced to actual terms in prison. Furthermore, the period of imprisonment was 14.9 months on average in cases decided by the court in 2022.

“Raising the sentencing guidelines could have the positive effect of sending a warning to individuals contemplating committing such crimes in the future,” said Chang Hang-bae, a professor in the Department of Industrial Security at Chung-Ang University. “However, we have to look into the court’s rulings in upcoming cases to see whether the guidelines have had any real impact.”

Meanwhile, the revised sentencing guidelines will receive feedback from South Korean citizens and experts before being finalized, a decision which will be made at the Sentencing Committee’s plenary session in March.

The cover image of this article was designed by Sangseon Kim. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.

Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.