Controversial Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye Exonerated From 22-year Sentence

After nearly five years in prison, former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who is serving a 22-year sentence, was pardoned by current President Moon Jae-in’s administration. Park, who became the first democratically elected leader to be impeached through parliamentary procedure, will be released on December 31 to promote “reconciliation and consolidate national power to help overcome the national crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

Whether Park deserved a pardon or not has become a controversial political issue ahead of the upcoming presidential election in March. Moon, who is prevented by law for re-election, had previously ruled out pardoning, which makes this announcement come as a surprise. According to the Blue House, South Korea’s government, Park’s worsening health has come into heavy consideration for the special pardon. After going through shoulder surgery in 2019, she has been spotted going to a hospital in a wheelchair by several media outlets. Since November 22, she has been hospitalized at the Samsung Medical Center, although the reason for her stay has not been disclosed. Park’s lawyer Yoo Young-ha had said that Park offered an apology for causing public concern and thanked Moon for his “tough decision.” 

Park, a daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, was in her fourth year of presidency in 2016 when thousands of protestors began lengthy protests and rallies calling for Park to be ousted from power for corruption and ineptitude. After being stripped from her position, Park was arrested and put on trial for pressuring major conglomerates for money, ultimately collecting a total of $19.3 million in bribes, including $7 million from Samsung. In 2018, Park was also put on trial over allegations that she received illegal funds from the National Intelligence Agency (NIS).

Several other people were embroiled in the scandal. Park’s longtime friend and confidant Choi Soon-sil was sentenced to 20 years in prison for charges including abuse of power and coercion, and was also fined $16.6 million. 

Lee Jae-yong, the son of late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, was arrested on corruption and bribery charges after the courts ruled that Samsung offered bribes to Park to gain government support for Lee to inherit management of Samsung from his father. Lee, who was sentenced to five years in prison, had his prison sentence halved after a retrial. He was finally released on parole on Korea’s National Liberation Day, which commemorates the end of Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula after World War II. 

Along with Park, Lee Seok-ki, a progressive politician, was released on parole. In 2013, he was arrested on charges of conspiracy to start an armed revolt against the government. Of the nine years on his sentence, he has served all but nine months. Liberal South Koreans have demanded his release, stating that he was a victim of Park’s political agenda to suppress her political enemies. Lee was the first Korean lawmaker to be arrested on treason counts since Korea’s dictators decades ago used treason charges to quell dissent. 

Park’s release comes as her old party, the People Power Party, and Moon’s democratic party are in a tight race for the presidency. Despite her conviction, Park has retained a large following, which is mostly made up of old, die-hard conservatives. They have held many rallies since Park’s initial imprisonment where they denounced Moon’s liberal agenda and called for Park’s release until COVID-19 prevented large gatherings. 

Park’s scandal has had an unprecedented effect on Korean society as it exposed the shadowy ties between members of the top ranks of politics and the heads of major corporations. Incidentally, Park’s actions gave way for the liberal Moon Jae-in to come into power, as he strongly campaigned for rooting out corruption in high-class Korean society. 

It is not clear if Park will resume any political endeavors, but according to a memoir released on Thursday, she expressed hopes to “meet the people again one day.”

By: Daniel Seong