South Korea's highest court has ruled the death penalty does not violate the constitution.
The BBC reports 59 prisoners are on death row - but the last executions there were in 1997, before an unofficial moratorium to allow for debate.
Analysts say it is unlikely executions will now resume.
The ruling follows a case filed by a man, 72, who was convicted of killing four tourists at sea in 2007. He claimed the death penalty infringed his constitutional guarantee of dignity.
But the Constitutional Court ruled, by five votes to four, it was "a legal punishment that can deter crime for the sake of the public".
Yonhap news agency quoted the court as saying executing serious criminals helped "protect innocent ordinary citizens and significant public interests".
However, the judges said the sentence should apply only in "exceptional cases" and caution was needed to ensure it was no abused.
The BBC reports it was the second time the court has ruled in favour of the death penalty, having said in 1996 the social climate was not right to abolish it.