On January 14, 2021, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld former President Park Geun-hye’s 20-year sentence on charges of corruption and abuse of power. This is quite a milestone, as the charges against Park are finally being brought and approved.
That evening, the Blue House issued a statement on the verdict: “such an incident must never happen again, taking the tragic incident of a former president serving time in prison as a historical lesson.” And the Supreme Court decision actually reflects the constitutional spirit of the nation and is a sign of the advancement of Korean democracy.
As a result, Park will have to serve 22 years in prison – 20 under the new sentence, and 2 more for “interfering with the election”. Given the time she has already served, Park, 68 now, will be released in 2039 at age 80+, unless she is granted a special presidential pardon or commutation of her sentence. Especially since she’s already serving the longest prison sentence for a former president – Lee Myung-bak was jailed later, while Jeon Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were pardoned during the change of power.
As Chu Ho-young, leader of the conservative parliamentary faction, noted, “Park has remained in prison for almost four years, longer than former presidents Jeong Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who committed treason.”
It is in this context that Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), said in a January 1, 2020 New Year’s interview with the local Yonhap news agency that he intended to propose to President Moon Jae-in that former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye be pardoned. Lee said pardoning the two former presidents could be a way to promote reconciliation and bridge the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals. “This year is the de facto last year for President Moon to practice politics, and this issue must be resolved at the right time… From now on, the party will have to play a more active role”.
However, Lee’s comments, which had not been previously agreed to by his party colleagues, drew fierce objections from mainstream DPK supporters, as well as suspicious reactions from opposition parties:
- Kim Chong-in, Interim leader of the main opposition People Power Party, told reporters that the chairman of the DPK had not consulted him about the plan. He was cautious, given that he was still recently trying to disassociate himself from Park and Lee.
- Ahn Cheol-soo, leader of the minor centrist People’s Party, told reporters that the issue of pardons for former presidents should not be used for political purposes. “This is an issue in which the consensus of the whole people of the country is important.”
- The leader of the progressive opposition Justice Party, Kim Jong-cheol, criticized Lee, saying that pardoning former presidents is the wrong way to implement social justice.
- The idea was welcomed only by the far-right minor Our Republican Party, whose members staged rallies in support of the Park pardon.
On January 3, the leadership of the ruling party said that the two imprisoned former presidents must express remorse if they want to be pardoned. After meeting with high-ranking party officials, including Lee Nak-yon, DPK spokesman Choi In-ho said: “We agreed that public consensus and remorse from the individuals involved are important in this matter. Going forward, we’ll respect opinions from the public and members of our party”.
Lee Nak-yon, however, reiterated that his party should take an active role in pushing for a pardon and promoting national unity and rejected speculation that he had coordinated the pardon with the presidential administration. On January 4, Lee Nak-yon repeated his call to pardon former presidents, indicating that he was not thinking about personal gain.
On January 5, in a Realmeter poll, South Koreans were almost evenly divided over the idea of pardoning ex-presidents. 47.7% of respondents said they were in favor of amnesty for Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, while 48% were against the idea. 56.1% of respondents said the pardon would not contribute to national unity, while 38.8% said it would.
Opinions were sharply divided according to party support. 88.8% of supporters of the ruling party were against the pardon, while 81.4% of those who supported the opposition were in favor.
According to a different Gallup Korea poll conducted January 5-7, 54% of respondents opposed the pardon. 39% were in favor, while 9% were undecided. The pardon was supported by almost 70% of respondents over the age of 60 and 70% of supporters of the opposition. At the same time, 75% of supporters of the ruling Toburo Democratic Party were against it.
The topic has since left the news, but on Jan. 14, the Blue House declined to comment on the ongoing debate over whether the president should pardon ex-presidents: “it is inappropriate to discuss pardons immediately after a Supreme Court ruling.”
What did the experts and the media write about it? The more conservative media noted that “the pardon of the two imprisoned former presidents should be based on humanitarian, not political, considerations”. Lee and Park, who will turn 80 and 69 this year, are in severe conditions. Keeping them behind bars would be bad for the country’s international reputation. In addition, mass cases of coronavirus infection have recently been observed among inmates of detention centers where they are serving their sentences.
The more centrist Korea Times suggests “no abuse of pardons” and sees Lee’s proposal only as a political gambit aimed at strengthening his political position as a presidential candidate. From the newspaper’s perspective, there is no national consensus on a special pardon for former heads of conservative states. Many people who joined mass candlelight rallies to call for Park’s impeachment oppose her pardon, which would only deepen the ideological conflict between progressives and conservatives.
Furthermore, Lee’s cited reason for the proposed pardons (national unity) is unconvincing. Disgraced former presidents are no longer a stumbling block to national harmony and reconciliation.
Another point worth noting is that the pardon proposal came about three months before the April 2021 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, the two largest cities in the country. In theory, pardoning former presidents would increase the chances of the ruling party winning, because so far their candidates are not popular.
Another version is that the decision to pardon former presidents is actually an attempt to cause a split in the conservative opposition. Park’s pardon will aggravate the confrontation between her supporters and Kim Chong-in’s line, and Moon’s opponents will have no single authoritative leader. Another subtlety is that the proposal to pardon both ex-presidents is met with more resistance than if each was proposed to be spoken about separately. For example, many supporters of Park Geun-hye believe that while their leader was convicted innocently, Lee Myung-bak deserved his sentence, and the evidence base is much more solid. In contrast, some opposition figures have spoken out against the possibility of a selective pardon for Park, arguing that Lee Myung-bak’s sentence is easier.
Another version suggests that it is an attempt to flirt with the right-wing electorate. Choi Jae-sung, Moon’s senior secretary for political affairs, has already stated that the decision to pardon must take into account the public perspective, suggesting that pardoning the two imprisoned former leaders is highly unlikely because of the current public sentiment. Then, the ex-presidents were promised pardon if they repented, which Park Geun-hye certainly would not do. So, as they say in Russia, “our job is to offer, your job is to refuse.”
What does the author think about this? – South Korean political life is full of quirks, and while interim conservative leader Kim Chong-in apologized publicly for Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, former prime minister and ruling party chairman Lee Nak-yon talks about national unity, and note that Lee is a highly influential politician who has not previously allowed himself to deviate from the general line.
Therefore, the author should recall the context in which Lee spoke. 2020 did not end in favor of Moon. While at the beginning of the year the president’s rating was about 70%, and the April 15 parliamentary elections gave the Democrats an overwhelming lead in parliament, by the end of the year the rating came in below 40%, and the “lame duck” status is considered to begin at that exact point. According to a survey conducted by the Realmeter agency on January 1-2, 34.1% of respondents have a positive view of the president’s performance and 61.7% disapprove of his policies.
In addition, the president was hit by the court verdict, which disavowed the decision of the Ministry of Justice on the dismissal of the obstinate prosecutor general. Moon, who approved the dismissal, was even forced to apologize to the nation for the “confusion” caused by the war between the Prosecutor General and the Minister of Justice, supported by the Blue House.
Also, the results of 2020 showed that it is still too early to claim victory over the coronavirus. The number of people sickened per day periodically exceeds a thousand, and not just churches but also nursing homes become breeding grounds for the infection. The strongest cluster with close to a thousand infected was at the detention center in eastern Seoul, where Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye are serving prison sentences. Ardent conservative supporters, of course, accused Moon of the whole thing being a cunning plan aimed at getting his conservative predecessors to die of the coronavirus. But even putting these unsubstantiated accusations aside, the level of sloppiness and incompetence in Seoul’s most elite prison is rather shocking. Other problems remain, such as unsettled increases in real estate prices.
In such a situation, saying that pardoning conservative presidents is important for national unity is a very interesting move, even though Lee Nak-yon does not belong to Moon Jae-in’s faction.
Moreover, while he was previously number one in the presidential candidates’ ratings, he has recently been displaced by Yoon Seok-yeol, and in this context it is not so much a question of rats jumping ship and Moon being abandoned by his associates, but of Lee Nak-yon starting his own game amid Moon Jae-in’s weakened position.
Lee Nak-yon’s main rival within the DPK is Gyeonggi-do provincial governor Lee Jae-min, who, although not a member of Moon Jae-in’s faction, continues his trend of leftist populism. In order to distinguish himself from him ideologically, Lee Nak-yon needs to take a more centrist stance. And with Kim Chong-in’s official line condemning Park and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol having a hand in her conviction, Park supporters, of which there are plenty, can make a rather non-trivial choice as to whom to cast their vote for.
However, in addition to political games, there is another very important factor that may have played an equally important role in the emerging talk of “national unity,” but the author will discuss it in more detail in the coming articles.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.