So, no one is going to pardon Park Geun-hye anytime soon. On January 15, Kang Min-seok of the Presidential Administration said that the verdict on Park Geun-hye is a testament to the maturity of South Korea’s democracy, and on January 18, President Moon Jae-in directly said at a New Year’s press conference that a decision to grant amnesty to the two former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak could not be made against the will of the people.
However, apart from political games, there is also a block of reasons why Park Geun-hye should be pardoned. Imagine a sin scale with Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and condemnation on one side and Moon Jae-in’s similar transgressions on the other. At first it seemed like one of the scales was empty and the other was loaded with various weights, but now the balance is changing. First, Moon Jae-in’s scale has by now revealed enough weights, many of which are comparable in weight to those on Park’s bowl. Second, over time it turns out that a fair number of weights, which were actively waved during the “candle revolution,” turned out to be hollow.
Moon Jae-in’s “achievements”
By the last year of Moon Jae-in’s rule, the notion that the corrupt government had been replaced by real democrats had faded, to say the least. The Moon administration has been caught up in a series of scandals that far surpass those of the Park Geun-hye era.
When it comes to children entering elite universities, the story of Cho Guk’s daughter is far more outrageous than that of Choi Soon-sil’s daughter. Both got in through rogue means and did nothing as students, but while Jeong Yoo-ra entered through the athlete quota and was still a gold medalist at the Asian Games, Cho Min positioned herself as a serious science writer, even though she did not practice science during her internship instead scrubbing test tubes and doing translations, having entered through fake recommendations and certificates.
In the story about government interference in the election, Park “only” called for votes for certain candidates, and did not orchestrate fake investigations and related press campaigns to get her buddy into a strategically important seat.
It is also impossible to recall a situation where a state closes a strategically important facility simply because the president says he wants to.
Nor was there an analogy to the 2020 War of the Justice Department and the Prosecutor’s Office, when the Blue House was drowning out inconvenient investigations by all means. When a team of special prosecutors investigated the former president before her impeachment, neither the investigators themselves nor the left-wing press wrote about the Blue House obstructing the investigation, destroying evidence, or trying to derail the case through procedural machinations.
The situation where the president appoints his protégé, despite the obstruction of parliament, was much more common under Moon than under his predecessor. As of December 2020, there were 24 such appointees, compared to 17 during the Lee Myung-bak administration and 10 during the Park Geun-hye administration.
The unwillingness to listen to the people, of which Park was so often rebuked, was also evident in Moon. Although since his inauguration the president has emphasized his determination to communicate frequently with the people and has been enthusiastic about approaching the public, over time such open communication has become sporadic. The same goes for press conferences – whereas in 2020 alone, Donald Trump held 59 press conferences, Emmanuel Macron 22, and Shinzo Abe 13, Moon held six during his entire time in power. By comparison, Kim Dae-jung held 20 press conferences and Roh Moo-hyun 45, while conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak had nine and Park Geun-hye seven.
Moon’s attendance rate at Cabinet meetings is similar – he has attended only 34% of the 193 meetings held since his inauguration. To compare again, Kim Dae-jung’s share was about 80%, Roh-51%, Lee-49%, and Park-30%.
To add to all this, the pro-Moonist prosecution has come up with a whole set of very interesting legal formulations for Park’s conviction. First of all, this is “interference in public affairs”. It mostly concerned Choi Soon-sil, but the wording was also applied to Park, claiming that she had thus violated the constitution. But the South Korean Constitution can be called super-presidential, and if the head of the country does not commit blatantly anti-state acts, it is impossible to condemn him. Article 84 of the Constitution states: “The President shall not be prosecuted while in office except in cases of sedition and treason.”
In fact, it wasn’t even possible to prove that Park made deliberately wrong decisions under pressure from Choi Soon-sil. It matters little whom the president may consult in selecting appointments: receiving advice does not mean that the advisor, formal or informal, is running the country.
Again, Choi is known to have corrected the president’s speeches, but that was for the early period of Park’s rule, not the time when she shifted to conservative positions. In addition, a comparison of the texts shows that the form, not the content, of the documents was corrected.
And if one were to apply the phrase “interference in state affairs” to Moon, then if the conservatives come to power, there is nothing to prevent him from being accused of being a crypto-communist, ruining the economy and power structures of the country in the interests of the DPRK.
The next term is “conspiracy”. This implied that the president could not be unaware of the affairs of his closest aides or associates, and if any of them had taken bribes or embezzled public money, the president must have been their accomplice, and most likely the chief beneficiary, even if there was no evidence against him personally. The fact of the conspiracy did not need any special evidence – the thesis “they have known each other for a long time, and therefore could well organize a criminal association” was enough. By applying the same principle to Moon it could be argued that he was an accomplice of Cho Guk and Kim Gyeong Su, both of whom were committing their crimes following his instructions.
Finally, there’s the “silent plea,” which allows charging extortionate bribes or other mischief even if the defendant said nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, in Park Geun-hye’s case, this was an important trump card for the prosecution, which concerned formally voluntary donations to Choi Soon-sil’s funds. Given the sources of funding for some of Moon’s projects, exactly the same logic can be applied to them.
Park Geun-hye’s “Crimes”
Over time, questions also arise about the charges that were the basis for sending Park to prison. Recall that Park’s main accusation involved conspiring with her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to force major conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte to donate 77.4 billion won to two foundations under Choi’s control. However, formally these were private foundations aimed at the development of sports, and the prosecution never proved that the donated funds were withdrawn from there and spent inappropriately.
Moreover, prosecutors have now jailed the current head of Samsung, Lee Je-young, alleging that the money he paid for elite horses or donated to foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil was a bribe designed to keep the state from preventing him from taking his current position. Yet the verdict in the Park Geun-hye case is very strong and does not refer to the offered bribe but rather to extortion carried out through a “silent plea”. In other words, if the money was found to be a bribe in the Lee Je-young trial, Park Geun-hye’s charges become considerably less valid.
The charge of receiving 3.5 billion won in OTC funds from three former National Intelligence Service executives from May 2013 to September 2016 is also marked “in collusion with her aides.” More precisely, it has been proven that intelligence paid Park’s aides, and the use of the term “collusion” has led to the conclusion that in fact the money was going to her, even if there is no direct evidence of this. Meanwhile, it is already known exactly what the intelligence services were paying for: the president was supposed to be kept in an information cocoon and confirm information coming from the LDCs if Park Geun-hye decided to independently verify the intelligence.
In addition, conservative investigator Byun Hee-jai’s research is gaining traction, arguing that the investigation against Park was a complete fabrication and that the main fabrication is the infamous tablet computer that JTBC journalists discovered, recovered deleted files from it, and, horrified by its contents, launched a campaign.
Recall that the campaign for impeachment largely began after the sensational news. On October 19, 2016, JTBC reported that Choi Soon-sil always keeps a tablet computer with her, on which she corrects the president’s speeches and thus she is the one who leads the country.
On October 24, 2016, the channel aired a special on Choi Soon-sil’s computer files, revealing that the presidential confidante had obtained hundreds of secret government documents and “used many red signs to correct the Dresden speech,” which infuriated the entire nation.
In all, JTBC ran 607 news stories about the tablet, stoking the flames and pushing the idea that the country is not run by the president, but by her shaman friend with a questionable past.
One can understand the people who took to the streets to protest against this kind of violent disorder, but there are a lot of questions about this story.
However, in May 2018, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office arrested Byun Hee-jai on charges of defamation against JTBC and Song Suk Hee personally with his allegations that the Choi Soon-sil tablet story was a fake. In addition to him, JTBC sued three other journalists and sent one of them to jail.
Curiously enough, shortly after Pyong’s arrest, on May 23, 2018, Na Gi-heyon, a National Forensic Service official responsible for the assessment of the tablet PC evidence, appeared in court as a witness. When Park’s defense asked him if his service confirmed that the tablet computer belonged to Choi Soon-sil, he replied: “No.” – According to him, it was scientifically impossible to identify the owner as Choi. In fact, after that, the court excluded the tablet from the evidence in the case, at the same time closing the question of whether the data on it were falsified.
As a result, on July 26, 2018, JTBC journalist Son Yong Suk appeared before the Communications Standards Commission and stated that it appears that JTBC never reported that Choi corrected the president’s speech on the tablet or that she was the only user of the tablet. But all this was just speculation. This blatantly contradicts their previous statements.
Combined with the suspicion that the most odious rumors that led people to mass demonstrations were not confirmed during the further investigation and were most likely planted on the Internet by a team of bloggers run by Moon’s associates (see the Druid King case), this significantly devalues the set of charges against the ex-president.
What will happen now and what could be Lee Nak-Young’s plan?
How is it with Park now? In September 2020 she underwent shoulder surgery and was hospitalized for 78 days before being sent back to prison. Now her shoulder pain has reportedly spread to her neck and back, but her request to suspend her term for much-needed hospital treatment was denied. It is known that because of the coronavirus epidemic, even her lawyer Yoo Yong Ha is now unable to see her often.
Soon Park will return to the detention center to serve her 22-year sentence. If she is not pardoned, she will be out of prison in 2039, when she will turn 87, whereas Jung Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo received and served much shorter sentences for their crimes. So Park Geun-hye is now the ex-president who will have spent the longest period of time behind bars. People with a sense of justice are quite surprised by this, since Park never staged a coup d’état resulting in a large number of victims, including civilians.
But back to the notional sin scale. Right now the president’s rating is tending toward 30%, and there is not much to be done to raise it. The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic has not yet seriously subsided, and Kim Jong-un’s statement at the 8th TPK Congress effectively nullified his efforts to become famous as a peacemaker with the North: It is openly said that, through Seoul’s fault, North-South relations have returned to the pre-Panmunjom declaration of April 2018 Successes in the trade war with Japan and anti-Japanese hysteria have undercut the coronavirus; unpleasant stories about “business on grannies” have also done their part. In addition, it is unclear whether relations with the new administration in Washington will remain serene.
According to a Gallup Korea poll conducted January 12-14, 2021, 47% of respondents want to see an opposition representative as the next president. 39% of those polled said that in order to maintain the balance of power it was necessary to elect a representative of the ruling party as president.
That is why the non-populist part of the Democrats understands that if Moon’s rating continues to fall against the background of the current trends, it makes sense to make some conciliatory gestures in advance in order to try to count on a counter-mercy in the future.
In this regard, it is possible that representatives of other factions, against the background of Moon’s turning into a “toxic asset,” will try to get rid of him or start their own game, demonstratively trying to dissociate themselves from the most odious elements of his course. This usually ends up reformatting the party, and by late 2021 or early 2022, the Democrats very well could split. In this context, Lee Nak-yong’s potential faction may well claim that, unlike right-wing or left-wing radicals, “our candidate is for national unity and balanced politics.” If the Blue House somehow manages to remove Yoon Seok-yeol from the list of contenders for power, Lee might try his luck as a third party, joining his support group with some of the right-wing and opposing the populist Lee Jae-yeon.
The lower the scale of Moon Jae-in’s sin sinks, the greater the chance that Park will be pardoned.
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”.