Published : 2013-12-27 20:22
Updated : 2013-12-27 20:22
It is a common practice for a president to set free quite a few prisoners and restore the rights of many other people with criminal records ahead of a major holiday. But the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day came and went without a presidential pardon. So did Christmas. President Park Geun-hye was making good on an election promise to administer the law strictly and treat no criminal offender with kid gloves.
But the upcoming Lunar New Year will be different, with the Ministry of Justice now screening prisoners and those with criminal records for presidential forgiveness. The ministry is doing so on an order from President Park to prepare for a pardon to help people in low-income brackets make a living.
Her decision elicited support from the main opposition Democratic Party as well as the ruling Saenuri Party ― one of the rare times this has happened during the 10 months Park has been in power. The Democratic Party welcomed it, saying those who had committed a criminal offense in making a living would be given an opportunity to have a fresh start.
The opposition party had good reason to support the pardon. It would be political suicide for the party to turn so many potential beneficiaries into enemies.
Her forgiveness, if it is limited to “offenses committed in making a living,” as promised, will be denied to those who have embezzled while holding public office, political big shots that took bribes, or businessmen that have siphoned off corporate funds to line their pockets. Yet, the scope of pardon will still be huge, as is invariably the case.
The number of pardons each of the three previous presidents conducted during his term in office ranged from seven to nine. No wonder they were accused of abusing their constitutional privilege, which is viewed both as a monarchical leftover and a mechanism for checks and balances between the executive and judiciary branches of government.
One of the most dishonorable cases involved President Lee Myung-bak, who exonerated many of his closest friends and supporters when he was packing up for his departure from the presidential office in January this year. Among the most sweeping presidential pardons was the one President Kim Dae-jung conducted in commemoration of his inauguration in 1998. Its beneficiaries, most of whom were those who had violated traffic rules, numbered 5.3 million.
Few could say Park has abused her privilege, given that the Lunar New Year pardon will be her first. Yet, she will have to guard herself against the temptation to grant one, especially as a means of propping up her declining popularity. Critics will undoubtedly take note that the upcoming pardon follows a recent opinion poll that showed a plunge in her approval rating.
Though her pardons, aimed at benefiting people with low incomes, may help promote national harmony, there is still no denying that they will undermine justice. A poor person driving a rundown delivery truck under the influence of alcohol is no less threatening to the safety of others than a drunken wealthy man driving a Porsche. This is the reason why Park will have to use her privilege sparingly.