The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Supreme Court Upholds 20-Year Sentence for Former Pres. Park Geun-hye 

The 2016 Candlelight Revolution finally ended with the Supreme Court’s final sentence for Park. Now the focus turns to a potential pardon.

South Korea’s Supreme Court Upholds 20-Year Sentence for Former Pres. Park Geun-hye 

Then-President Park Geun-hye delivers an address at a luncheon hosted by U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Korean Industries, and the Korea-U.S. Business Council at the Willard Hotel on May 8, in Washington D.C., May 8, 2013.

Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

On January 14, the Supreme Court of South Korea upheld a 20-year prison term for former President Park Geun-hye, who received the sentence in a July 2020 trial.

The final judgment and sentence came three years and nine months after the prosecution’s original indictment of Park in April 2017. The scandal alleging that Park manipulated state affairs for personal gain broke in media reports in the fall of 2016, sparking mass protests calling for her ouster. The movement, dubbed the Candlelight Revolution, resulted in Park’s impeachment in early 2017, following shortly by the election of current President Moon Jae-in.

In the first appeal, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Seoul High Court, saying that Park should be separately convicted of bribery under the Public Official Election Act.

In July 2020, the Seoul High Court sentenced Park to a 15-year prison term for bribery charges and a 5-year term for abuse of authority with 18 billion Korean won ($16.3 million) in fines. The Supreme Court upheld that sentence this week.

Adding the two year sentence Park had separately received for her illicit involvement in the nomination of candidates for the Saenuri Party — which was the ruling party during her term — for general elections in 2016, her final sentence will be 22 years in prison.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In a briefing on January 14, Kang Min-seok, the spokesperson for the presidential Blue House, said, “Such a tragic event should never happen again by learning the lesson from the unfortunate case of a former president’s sentence.”

However, Park may have a chance to go home soon.

Lee Nak-yeon, leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said in an interview with a local news media on January 1, “I will propose the pardons of the two former presidents – Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye – to President Moon Jae-in at an appropriate time.” He added that the pardons could be a “big key to national unity.”

Park and Lee, both from the rival conservative bloc in South Korea’s politics, meet the criteria for special pardons from Moon, which could give them a boost as he considers Lee Nak-yeon’s suggestion.

Choi Jae-sung, Moon’s senior presidential secretary for political affairs, however, said on January 13 that a “pardon should be given from the stance of the people and from the standard of the people.”

Kang, the Blue House spokesman, said in his briefing that is inappropriate to discuss a possible pardon just after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Lee Nak-yeon said his proposal intended to ease social conflicts and achieve national unity, but his colleagues are questioning the true intention of his proposal as he is one of the top candidates to be president after Moon in 2022. Some lawmakers from the Democratic Party have said that pardons for the two former presidents are not appropriate and criticized Lee for giving an additional political burden to Moon.

Moon had previously said he will not grant pardons for those convicted of bribery.

As many of Moon’s supporters are extremely opposed to pardons for the two former presidents, experts believe the prospects are dim unless the situation radically changes.

Even within the People Power Party, the main opposition party and successor to the ruling party during Park and Lee’s terms, there are conflicting opinions regarding potential pardons. Some are concerned that dredging up old scandals could damage the party’s changes in important by-elections for the mayors of Seoul and Busan, which will be held in April.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In addition, while some aides to the two former presidents are in favor of pardons, those who joined the party after the Candlelight Revolution are opposed. Kim Jong-in, a leader of the People Power Party, and other first-term lawmakers believe that pardons for Park and Lee would not be generally supported by the public.

Those who oppose the pardon in the Democratic Party point to the case of Chun Doo-hwan. He served as president from 1980 to 1988 after taking control through a coup following President Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. In 1980, Chun mobilized troops to brutally suppress protesters in Gwangju who raised questions about the injustice of his military dictatorship and demanded the democratization of the country. An estimated 2,000 people were killed in the crackdown.

Chun’s successor, Roh Tae-woo, was elected through a direct presidential election for the first time under the current constitution, but he was also a soldier and an important figure in the previous military dictatorship. Roh was imprisoned along with Chun after his retirement in 1993.

However, both men were pardoned on December 20, 1997, the day after Kim Dae-jung won South Korea’s presidential election. Kim Dae-jung, who was himself a victim of oppression during the military dictatorship, was the one who suggested the pardons of Chun and Roh to his predecessor, Kim Young-sam.

Kim Dae-jung’s bold suggestion was an attempt to unify public opinion and renew the deeply divided political landscape in a productive way for the national interest. But since the pardon, Chun has been living in a guarded, luxurious country house without showing any sign of guilt for his crimes.

Also, his name has appeared on the list of habitual tax delinquents announced by the National Tax Service every year since 2018. According to data from the National Tax Service released in 2020, his unpaid local taxes amounted to 970 million won ($88,255). Despite the unpaid tax bill, he has been seen golfing with acquaintances and spending more than 100,000 won per meal at restaurants, according to local media.

Aside from this, Chun has been indicted and tried for defamation of Father Cho Bi-oh. Chun called Cho a “liar” and “Satan” for testifying that helicopters fired machine guns at citizens during the Gwangju Uprising. In the first trial last year, the court sentenced Chun to eight months in prison, suspended for two years.

On the contrary, Roh has not been publicly active due to health reasons, but his son visited the graves of the victims of the Gwangju Uprising and visited their bereaved families to apologize, showing a marked contrast to Chun.

There are many voices from the public arguing that Kim should not have pardoned Chun, as he never admitted his wrongdoing and showed no remorse for his atrocities.

Due in part to Chun’s example, public opinion is increasingly firm in saying that if a president commits a crime, he or she should go to jail and stay there.