SEOUL – On the same day a gob-smacked world learned that Suga, a member of the mega-group BTS, had come down with Covid-19, one of the most dramatic political-judicial episodes in the history of South Korea was concluded.
Park Geun-hye, 69, the former South Korean president who was impeached, thrown out of office and jailed against a backdrop of incendiary political fireworks in 2017, was pardoned on Friday amid a fraught national election campaign.
Her upcoming release – part of a customary New Year’s Eve pardon program that, this year, included 3,094 beneficiaries – surprised most with its timing but was hardly unexpected. Multiple disgraced high-profile figures, from ex-presidents to corporate tycoons, have benefitted from similar pardons in the past.
Even in a democracy noted for lively politics, the downfall of the conservative Park was spectacular. It came in the wake of a spiraling scandal that sucked in multiple ministers, officials and the de facto head of Samsung, galvanizing the nation and leading to million-person candle-lit demonstrations in central Seoul in 2016.
The conservative Park’s fall paved the way for liberal President Moon Jae-in to enter the presidential Blue House in 2017. Moon’s constitutionally mandated single term expires next May, after a presidential election on March 9.
Questions hang over the timing of Park’s pardon, given that South Korea is in the midst of a neck-and-neck presidential election campaign. The release of Park may provide Moon, constitutionally restricted to a single term in office, with a modicum of insurance against political revenge after he exits office.
In a political irony, the conservative Park’s release could also – due to personality politics that cross-ideological firewalls – benefit the left-wing governing party rather than the right-wing opposition.
The princess who lost her throne
“President Park is a part of South Korea’s biggest political dynasty – like the Kennedys or the Bush family,” Lew Han-jin, a supporter of Park and a political columnist, told Asia Times.
She was the eldest daughter of Park Chung-hee, perhaps the most important and divisive figure in the history of South Korea, a nation founded in 1948.
Park, a general who seized power via a coup d’etat in 1961, led South Korea’s modernization drive until his assassination in 1979. His eradication of poverty, emplacement of national infrastructure and championing of industrial conglomerates transformed an agrarian backwater into an economic powerhouse.
Those successes made the strongman a figurehead of the right.
But on the negative side of the ledger – his youthful service as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, and his suppression of political freedoms and abuse of human rights while in the presidential Blue House – made him a villain in the eyes of the left.
He was assassinated in 1979. His daughter took power, by democratic means, in 2013.
As well as being something of a princess to older, conservative South Koreans, she was seen as a brilliant election strategist. She entered her father’s former compound on a wave of hope that she could return the country to the kind of growth rates it had seen under him.
But the daughter – always a distant figure, and far from a people person – appeared to lack her father’s personal charisma, fierce grip and political smarts.
In 2016, news broke that her friend Choi Soon-sil – whose late father had been a spiritual advisor to Park in her youth – was leveraging her closeness to the president for corrupt ends. The media, sniffing blood, went into attack mode. Allegations cascaded.
Choi’s corrupt scheming to raise funds for the benefit of herself and her equestrian daughter embroiled everyone from Park to Samsung heir Lee Jae-young. And when it was reported that Park was managing presidential affairs from her boudoir, accusations arose that her crony was a shadowy puppet master setting national policy.
Massive – but peaceful – demonstrations took place, Saturday after Saturday, in central Seoul. Park’s attempts to placate the public with apologies fizzled.
As her ratings plunged, her party, always riven by factionalism, deserted her and South Korea’s first female leader became the first president ever to be successfully impeached. After being toppled, she was tried and jailed on charges of abuse of power and corruption.
Throughout, Park maintained her innocence, claiming she was the victim of a political conspiracy. After being sentenced to 22 years, she refused to take part in further judicial processes.
In the face of this unrepentant non-defense, the judiciary brought more and more charges, taking her compound sentence to more than three decades, but never managed to find the funds she supposedly embezzled.
Eventually, it seized her home and auctioned it to pay some of her fines.
Park has suffered a range of reported health problems during her confinement, part of which was spent in hospital, rather than prison. Those issues were cited as a “very important criterion” for Friday’s pardon.
Pardons, issued either by the president or the justice ministry, provide an ameliorating factor in what some consider a highly vindictive – and others a highly democratic – system of justice that often culls those in power.
The most famous pardoning was the lifting of, respectively, death and life sentences passed down on two former generals and presidents, Chun Do-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who held power in consecutive terms between 1980 and 1992. Their exoneration was taken by former opposition firebrand Kim Dae-jung, just before he ascended to the presidency in 1997.
Kim, who had been victimized by the authoritarian governments of the past, took his decision on the basis of national unity. Echoing that precedent, the government Friday cited “grand unity among the people” in addition to the state of her health, for the pardon of Park.
And it is not only presidents.
In recent years, there has been a slew of pardons for the tycoons leading such major corporations as Samsung, Hyundai and SK. Though jailed or given suspended sentences for a range of corporate malfeasances, their sentences have been nullified by judges who frequently cite their importance to the national economy.
A crafty ploy?
Regardless of these multiple precedents, cynics in Seoul’s coffee shops and social media chatrooms are wondering if there was a Machiavellian political motive behind Friday’s pardon.
Following political machinations in 2020 and early this year, the special investigator who was one of the key figures behind Park’s downfall, Yoon Seok-youl, is now the presidential candidate of the right-wing opposition, the People Power Party.
After Moon took power in 2017, he appointed Yoon prosecutor general. But Yoon proved to be independently minded. He staunchly defended the prosecution in defiance of President Moon’s attempts to reform the institution in a high profile battle that saw two of Moon’s justice ministers resign.
Yoon resigned this year, and – largely on the basis of his successful battle with Moon, and despite his political inexperience – won the candidacy of the PPP, the successor to Park’s party.
Ergo, the return of Park to the public arena amid the election campaign could work to the benefit of the left-wing governing party, the Democratic Party of Korea, rather than the party she formally headed, whose current candidate was a key player in her overthrow.
“I think it could benefit both parties, according to which narratives they spin,” said David Tizzard, a professor of Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University. “For the People Power Party it will be a boon for them, for their supporters and for the Democratic Party of Korea. It will be good optics, showing their generosity and their efforts toward reconciliation.”
A further issue is the party’s key players largely hail from the supporters of Park’s predecessor in the Blue House, Lee Myung-bak.
Lee, who is serving a 17-year rap on corruption charges, did not receive a pardon on Friday. Lee and Park had led competing factions.
But some are confident Park – if she decides to speak out, which is not clear at present – will prioritize politics before personalities and factions.
“Prior to the [parliamentary election in April] President Park had released a message saying she wants the conservatives to unite,” Lew said. “I think she is bigger than her own well-being, and I think she will take a stance if the election is close.”