In 1995, two South Korean ex-presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, were indicted on charges related to a 1979 coup d’etat they had commanded. It was a landmark moment for Korean democracy. After decades of dictatorship, the Korean justice system was finally powerful enough to right some wrongs of the past. A heavily publicized trial followed, with sentences levied: life for Chun and 22 years for Roh. No crowds gathered to celebrate, nothing like the recent celebrations of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Nevertheless, then as now, there was a collective sense of pride that some justice, however belated, had finally been done. Then, in 1997, both men were pardoned by then-president Kim Young-sam.
To say Koreans were disappointed would be an understatement. I was there, I remember. Many tried to ease their displeasure by finding comfort in the fact both had served over a year in prison. Others found solace in the public disgrace. In many ways, Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and recent arrest is a strong echo of the past. It raises the essential question: will she too be given preferential treatment? Despite all the evidence of her wrongdoing — misuse of power, embezzlement, illegal distribution of government information, and blacklisting — will the penalties of law again be bent to make an exception?
Given current acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn’s known loyalties to Park, the concern is difficult to ignore. As a foreign resident of South Korea, I am honestly worried the peaceful, candlelit demonstrations — events greeted across the globe with so much admiration — will turn violent if a pardon is used to circumvent due process. Simply put, impeachment and disgrace will not be enough this time.
Like in the United States, a Korean president has the power to pardon someone even before their trial begins or before a verdict is reached. This is an important detail often overlooked in ex-president Park’s situation because of the looming presidential election in May. Even the head of the Korean Constitutional Court was careful to note in her impeachment verdict that removal from office did not guarantee further punishment. With many Koreans sighing in relief for the moment, an even greater number are holding their breath to see what happens next.
Even if Hwang refrains from pardoning Park, the many trials involving her and Choi Soon-sil will likely be long and drawn out. Many in the media worry public fatigue will result in eventual disinterest, allowing leniency to creep into the sentencing, particularly for CEOs like Lee Jae-yong. If the trials of Chun and Roh are meant as any guide, the sentencing could take anywhere from 10 to 18 months to reach.
From a societal perspective, a critical consideration moving forward is the prevailing sentiment among Koreans that the law applies unequally. A variety of surveys conducted by Korean media in recent years have shown an overwhelming majority believe the rich and powerful are given preferential treatment in courts and by the Prosecution Service. According to a survey published this February in the Korean Law Times, only 12.7 percent of Koreans said they believe the Prosecution Service performs its job faithfully. According to the OECD’s Society at a Glance 2016, Korean confidence in government was ranked 31st out of 34 countries, rated as less than half of the OECD average.
Even a casual look at recent Korean film and music culture demonstrates a consistent theme of rooted resentment towards corrupt government. Recent films such as “Inside Men” and “Madness” routinely portray government officials and wealthy businessmen as arrogant and oblivious to human dignity. No doubt stories like the Korean Air “nut rage” incident only serve to perpetuate this perception of class divide and preferential treatment.
Those in Korea who wish to reform inequalities, both real and perceived, identify the outcomes of the Park and Choi trials as instrumental in shaping future precedents and public confidence in both government and due process. Surveys conducted by my research team and others show age plays a critical role in the perceived need for reform. Not only do the younger generations believe more in reform’s possibility, they also believe more in its necessity. It is, therefore, no surprise these generations participated most in impeachment demonstrations. As a foreign observer, I can only interpret this as the voice of Korea’s future. How loudly this voice will be heard remains to be seen.
A pardon of Park Geun-hye, should it occur, can be expected in the next few weeks, likely on one of the last days of acting President Hwang’s term in office. It bears mentioning Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were also pardoned on one of Kim Young-sam’s last days in office. One can only hope the Korean people are not disappointed a second time.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. He conducts research on a wide range of topics including East Asian culture and maritime trade and is a regular contributor to the Korea Times.
Note: The Korean constitution provides for two types of pardoning power — a “normal pardon” and a “special pardon.” A normal pardon, which requires parliamentary approval, and can be issued ahead of or during a trial. In the case of Park, an attempt at a “special pardon” is far more likely because it does not require parliamentary approval but can only be issued after a guilty verdict. Scholars are divided on what powers an acting president holds as the Korean constitution is vague on the issue; and as there is no precedent for an acting president issuing a special pardon (which would first require Park’s trial to be concluded quickly), it would likely end up in the Constitutional Court for a final decision. In any case, even an attempt at a pardon (to say nothing of its outcome — success or failure) would have ramifications for politics in South Korea.