01.11.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Park Geun-hye before Court: Trial or Inquisition?


Our previous material on the process of ex-President of South Korea Park Geun-hye came out on the eve of 16 October, when the period of her detention was due to expire. By this time, she had attended 80 court hearings, but earlier accusations simply disintegrated: the ex-President stubbornly pled innocent and no definite evidence was found.

Yet a solution was discovered! “Guided by the seriousness of the charges and the great social importance of this case,” the Court of the Central Administrative District of Seoul extended the detention of Park Geun-hye for another six months, until 16 April 2018.

Legally, the decision is based on Article 70 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Republic of Korea, which states that suspects may be detained when there exists serious evidence against them, as well as if they are capable of destroying evidence or disappearing. The warrant for the arrest of such suspects is issued for two months and can be extended twice, i.e. the total period of detention may last for 6 months. As you can see, Mrs. Park was immediately given the maximum detention.

Yes, formally Mrs. Park is not under trial. Since the court is already running, it is assumed that all the necessary evidence has already been collected. However, in addition to the 18 counts of earlier charges (including bribery, abuse of power and the leakage of confidential information), there was one more thing – accepting bribes from the companies Lotte and SK.

Concerning how rules of procedure were observed during the trial, the Korean media illustrates it well: despite the seemingly newly discovered circumstances, “The prosecutor’s office offers any kind of support without interrogating already interviewed witnesses or witnesses with identical evidence.” The office intends to interview witnesses until the end of November and to decide on a verdict before the end of the year.

The reaction to such evasive actions from the defense was expected. Earlier Park’s lawyers were going to file a request for the ex-President’s release on bail, citing health problems and the impossibility of the “threat of evidence destruction,” since the court already has all the evidence. However, on 16 October, Park Geun-hye called the whole trial a political retaliation under the guise of the rule of law.

The statement of the ex-President consisted of several moments. Firstly, the former President finally voiced her stance of the case (she had not yet done that in court). Secondly, Mrs. Park stressed that she assumes all the historical responsibility and the burden of this matter, calling for being more lenience towards all the persons involved. However, during her tenure as head of state, she has never received any requests from anyone and nor grant them.

Thirdly, Mrs. Park said that the past six months, during which she was imprisoned and participated in the trial, were a terrible and painful time for her. Placing trust into a person, she was later faced with crushing betrayal, which led to the loss of her dignity and her whole life. Now, it has come to a standstill.

Judging by this statement, the psychological state of the ex-President suffered a rather strong blow. Apparently she hoped that when the official term of custody ended, the rule of law would prevail and she would be released. And yet she was openly told, “You will be detained until you confess.” In addition, Mrs. Park experienced a personal tragedy after the betrayal of a loved one. Being introverted and unpopular, she was hard at connecting with people, but she placed absolute trust into those close to her.

According to Park’s photos, it was clear that the ex-President had worsened physically, grown old, appearing as a genuinely ill person. It was very difficult for her to accept the fact that she would be issued a court order to accept the warrant for her extended detention. It is not clear how true the rumors are that the investigators denied her qualified medical care and that she was in a cell without an air conditioner during the heatwave, but as it turned out, she had visited Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital twice due to pain in her back and toes.

On the same day, the lawyers of the ex-President called the aforementioned warrant a shameful act of the judiciary and announced the resignation of their powers, calling any discussions senseless, because “the court’s decision expresses its already definite position on the unconditional guilt of the former president.” Chief lawyer Yoo Yeon-ha said that, in fact, hearings concerning the bribes from Lotte and SKhave already been carried out and therefore cannot serve as grounds for prolonging the ex-President’s detention. And if so, this means the dismissal of judicial procedure due to its senselessness.

The South Korean Prosecutor’s Office expressed regret in this regard and decided to hold the next court session on 19 October, as planned. At the same time, the lawyers were called to cancel the decision on resignation. The court also stressed that the decision on the guilt of Park Geun-hye was not decided in advance; everything depends on the availability of evidence and the outcome of the parties’ arguments. Mrs. Park, however, did not appear at the hearing.

What comes next, then? It is possible for Park Geun-hye’s lawyers to reconsider their resignation, so new lawyers will not be appointed. If in this case the defendant refuses to attend the court sessions, then there are no ways to force her. Then again, the proceedings cannot continue without lawyers. Even if a state attorney (whose selection procedure began on 19 October) is appointed to protect Mrs. Park, it will take a long time to once again prepare and resume the trial, since at the moment, the case materials count 100,000 pages, and new lawyers must be acquainted with them. The new date will be appointed after the state attorney has completed the preparation of the former President’s defense. It is unclear when this will happen, but at least a month is bound to pass.

It is also expected that Park Geun-hye can go on protesting by refusing to attend meetings or declaring a hunger strike. In this case, the case will be examined in absentia. Even the central South Korean press featured replicas stating that “the absolute failure of the process cannot be ruled out or, at least, a significant standstill.”

Of course, at the moment Park Geun-hye is a ‘political corpse.’ Those who run the Conservative Party do not have an icon of her father but rather the portrait of Lee Seung Man. This is obvious both from its title (Free Korea is mainly an homage to Lee’s Liberal Party) and the recent demand of the party’s leadership for Mrs. Park to leave its ranks. On 20 October, they decided to hold a meeting of the Ethics Committee to discuss the topic of Mrs. Park’s membership in the party due to the “loss of confidence” or “damage to the image of the party.” According to the representative of the party Kang Hyo-san, it is expected that pursuant to the recommendations of the renewal committee, Mrs. Park will be offered to withdraw from the party of her own free will. Such a measure is most preferable and maintains respect for the former president, but if Mrs. Park Geun-hyedoes not file an application within ten days, she will be excluded from the ranks of the party automatically.

On the other hand, some opposition representatives in the parliament demanded Mrs. Park’s release according to the rule of law. As the deputy Yong San Zhik stated, “Detention cannot be extended only by the will of public opinion solely on the grounds that Mrs. Park is an impeached President.”

Thus, on 23 October, Mrs. Park’s supporters organized a meeting in front of the court building, chanting, “President Park is innocent and therefore must be released!” And the deputy Cho Won-jin even organized the so-called Patriotic Party of the Great Korea, whose main slogans are the liberation of Mrs. Park, the fight against communism (who else could have fabricated the evidence and provoked mass demonstrations) and the reinforcement of the country’s alliance with the USA, the weakening of which led to impeachment. Verily, with such friends one needs no foes.

What is the result of this ‘investigation?’ From a formal point of view, if the court could not pass the verdict within the allotted time, the defendant is not guilty, albeit for lack of evidence. What is unacceptable for the current administration is letting off steam without concrete charges or coming to a situation when Mrs. Park should be released because she has already done the time for the accusations she was convicted of. While it will not raise the approval rating of the conservatives, it will damage Moon’s position, especially since the relatively modest success of the new president in all spheres do less to maintain his approval rating than dancing on the corpse of his predecessor.

At the same time, the prosecution openly admits that it failed accumulate enough evidence to reasonably convict the ex-President of the involvement in those corruption scandals that were widely announced during mass demonstrations and were then taken for granted. However, since the Constitutional Court stated that it would act from considerations of political efficiency and the standards of evidence would be softened, in relation to the criminal process, the case does not pass.

Connected to this is the renewal of the investigation of the sinking of MV Sewol – despite the fact that the extraction and investigation of the ferry for half a year did not lead to any sensational discoveries (otherwise they would immediately appear in the media), the new authorities are actively trying to find at least some weighty evidence which would undermine the ex-President.

People who went rallying for the former President’s impeachment should not feel deceived.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.