The Justice Ministry recently instructed prosecutors’ offices to report on all of those convicted in connection with demonstrations over five specific issues.
The ministry said that it would receive the reports to include them in the list of candidates to be pardoned. The government is said to be considering granting a special amnesty on Christmas or the Lunar New Year’s Day.
The five issues, which caused fierce protests and political strife, are: the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island; the setup of a power transmission tower in Milyang, South Gyeongsang Province; a deadly fire which broke out accidentally during clashes between the police and residents resisting eviction in Yongsan, Seoul; the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system; and the sinking of the Sewol ferry.
There are few precedents of pardoning offenders related to specific protests. The ministry told Prosecutors’ Offices to submit the lists of not only assembly law violators but also all of those protesters punished on charges of obstructing justice, business or traffic and committing assault.
A pardon is a right granted to a president by the constitution, but it must be exercised as narrowly as possible because it can be granted without a parliamentary approval and also because it violates the rule of law by invalidating judicial rulings.
For a pardon to be accepted by the people as justifiable, it should serve the purpose of national integration, among others. However, pardons for some of the protesters under consideration are likely to work against this aim. If pardoned convicts are feared to incite conflicts rather than contribute to integration, such pardons must not be granted.
Protests over the five issues have something in common. Among the participants were quite a few protesters who would habitually use violence in politically sensitive demonstrations. Most of the professional protesters negated the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea, taunted the government and attacked the riot police during rallies.
Demonstrations delayed the naval base construction by 14 months, incurring losses of 27.3 billion won ($25.1 million) to the state coffers as the government had to compensate the builders for the delay. Militant protesters who belonged to civic groups around the country joined local residents to obstruct the construction.
Similarly, protesters against the power transmission tower, the THAAD and the Yongsan eviction obstructed law enforcement violently.
Han Sang-kyun, the leader of a group of militant labor unions who is currently serving a three-year sentence for leading an illegal and violent rally over the sinking of the Sewol, may be included in the list of pardon candidates.
It is inappropriate and even risky to seek to release both militant professional protesters and other protesters.
Pardoning the former in a bundle with the latter cannot but damage the justification of suppressing illegal demonstrations. It amounts to a toleration of violent rallies.
The ministry probably went to the trouble of specifying the five issues because it regards participants in related protests as supporters of the current administration. On the campaign trail, President Moon Jae-in pledged to work to revoke the damages suit filed against civic groups for obstructing the naval base construction. Moon should not use pardons to reward those who supported him politically in the last presidential election.
Presidents of the past tended to grant amnesties in their first year in office in a bid to integrate the nation after election. However, in general, the public is critical of presidential pardons because they have sometimes been used to free the president’s close associates or supporters.
As a presidential candidate, Moon vowed to restrict the president’s right to pardon convicts. Against expectations, he did not pardon anyone on the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day, one of a few days when presidents have usually done so.
A president has an obligation to safeguard the constitution. Releasing violent protesters who challenge the state authority and try to obstruct government projects is as good as neglecting the obligation. Moon should be prudent in granting pardons.