On August 12, 2022, President Yoon Suk-yeol approved a list of those subject to a special amnesty on the occasion of the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. It comprises 1,693 people, including major businessmen. They include Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Jae-yong, who was previously released from prison on parole, Lotte Group president Shin Dong-bin, Dongkuk Steel Mill CEO Jang Se-joo, former STX Group chairman Kang Duk-soo and several trade union activists.
Former ROK President Lee Myung-bak was not on the list, although the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office decided on June 28 to grant a request to suspend his sentence of serving a prison term for three months. This was because of a deteriorating health condition (diabetes and a number of other chronic illnesses) so Lee is currently staying in a designated medical facility.
It should be recalled that in October 2018, Lee received a 15-year prison sentence on charges of bribery and embezzlement, with the evidence against him being more real than against Park Geun-hye. The court found that Lee was the de facto owner of DAS and that he used his presidential power to benefit the company and himself, including accepting a bribe of 5.9 billion won from Samsung.
Older age, on the other hand, immediately raised the issue of amnesty, but the ex-president’s misadventures lasted a long time. In March 2019, Lee was released on bail for health reasons and in June 2019, Lee Myung-bak was hospitalized, with rumors claiming he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Although three or four amnesties were granted during the Moon rule, Lee’s name was not on the lists. Moreover, in January 2020, prosecutors asked an appeals court to increase Lee Myung-bak’s prison term to 23 years and raise the fine from 13 to 32 billion won ($27.3 million). While demanding a heavier prison term, the prosecution pointed out that the ex-president had not repented of his misdeeds. The prosecution had declared him guilty of accepting bribes from the National Intelligence Service and Samsung Electronics, as well as corporate tax evasion and misappropriation of funds from DAS, of which he was the beneficial owner.
However, the Seoul High Court suspended the execution of the sentence pending the ruling of the ROK Supreme Court on a re-appeal and Lee Myung-bak was released from prison on February 25, 2020 and placed under house arrest six days after he had been remanded in custody. On April 16, 2021 Lee Myung-bak was hospitalized again.
Shortly thereafter, on April 21, after the Conservatives had won the 2021 by-elections, Moon Jae-in met with newly elected mayors of Seoul and Busan, Oh Se-hoon and Park Hyung-joon. They suggested that the president should consider an amnesty for imprisoned ex-presidents. On April 29, in a video message to the nation, Moon reiterated that the decision to pardon former president Lee Myung-bak would be based on the law and public opinion. And public opinion, according to a poll conducted on April 29-30 by the Korean Society Opinion Institute, was rather against it: 51.7 per cent do not want a pardon.
In 2022, Lee was not included in the amnesty for Buddha’s birthday on May 8, 2021. On June 8, 2022, 81-year-old Lee Myung-bak petitioned the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office in Anyang to suspend his sentence, citing health problems, while conservative party leader Kweon Seong-dong said Lee’s pardon was necessary to promote national unity.
What is a suspension? Under the Criminal Procedure Act, a sentence of imprisonment may be suspended if it is feared that continued imprisonment may result in serious ill health or pose a risk of death. Such a suspension may also be granted in cases where the convicted person is over the age of 70. And Lee has been admitted to and discharged from hospital several times for chronic conditions such as diabetes.
But on the same day, the already new, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol said that Lee Myung-bak’s potential pardon is “not an issue to talk about now”. These remarks were seen as an intention to distance themselves from the growing debate on Lee’s pardon, especially as it was Yoon who found most of the key evidence when he served as prosecutor.
However, Yoon’s other remarks made around the same time said that after Moon’s pardon of Park Geun-hye, it was unfair to keep Lee behind bars and there were rumors that he might be granted a special pardon on the occasion of National Liberation Day on August 15. So, on June 9, Yoon Suk-yeol said he did not think Lee Myung-bak should be kept in prison for decades, given similar cases in the past.
Lee Myung-bak was once again hospitalized on June 27, and the next day, on June 28, the Suwon Prosecutor’s Office announced a temporary three-month suspension of his imprisonment for health reasons. Incidentally, Lee had earlier, back in December 2020, applied for a suspension of his imprisonment, citing fears of COVID-19 contamination, but his request was rejected.
While the ex-president was in Seoul National University Hospital, a selection committee for the amnesty began its work at the end of July. But while the conservative media wrote on July 27 that judging by the general atmosphere, things are looking up for Lee Myung-bak to be released since then Yoon Suk-yeol’s rating has flown down and there are fears that controversial pardons for Lee or other politicians will only exacerbate the decline. Therefore, according to ruling party officials, President Yoon decided to reduce the number of politicians to be pardoned to a minimum.
On August 9, the pardon review board of the Ministry of Justice decided to remove Lee Myung-bak from the list of persons eligible for a special amnesty. The former South Gyeongsang provincial governor Kim Kyung-soo, who was convicted in the Druking case, was also omitted. The board found that the politicians were unrepentant and also took into account negative public opinion regarding their pardon. Although Yoon may have accepted the board’s recommendations only in part, Lee Myung-bak will still be imprisoned.
It is clear that none of the convicted presidents served their term to the end, but the author is relentless in pointing out that Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who were convicted of coup d’état, spent less time behind bars than Park Geun-hye, whom the Moon regime at one stage openly tried to starve out by effectively denying her the right level of medical care. Lee’s situation is in the middle, and if he is indeed as seriously ill as is being reported, the suspension on health grounds could theoretically be extended in anticipation of a more favorable time. Lee has even less chance of returning to politics than Park, although many in the current president’s team “rose to stardom” during his reign.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.