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[Kim Myong-sik] Keeping Park in prison raises national jitters

Three retired journalists are talking politics over dinner on a Sunday evening. Mr. A and Mr. B were at “Taegeukki rallies” at two different locations in Seoul earlier in the day, but Mr. C is indifferent to those events promoted by this and that rightist organization.

A believes that the impeachment last year of former president Park Geun-hye was the result of a grand leftist conspiracy and that Moon Jae-in’s prosecutors should stop molesting her in a kangaroo court. B’s position is different considerably. He opines that Park deserved impeachment for her proven incompetence and lack of leadership, but he also believes she should be spared from criminal punishment.

While A and B both dislike President Moon, their focuses of criticism are far apart. A sees Moon as a free rider on the “candlelight protests” by people angered at the Choi Soon-sil scandal. If the latter does not question Moon’s legitimacy, he finds the president too naive and vulnerable to wade through Korea’s increasingly complex security situation.

C is unwilling to confront either of the two friends at the dinner table, yet he is sorry that public opinion in this country is so sharply divided by the lines represented by A and B. He may be a middle-of-the-roader, but he positively calls for freeing Park Geun-hye as an essential step for domestic political accommodation, which he believes is as important as a thaw between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The three men agree on one point: The 18 counts against Park, which include bribery, coercion, abuse of power and the leaking of state secrets, are overblown, following the wishes of the candlelight force, guardians of the present administration. Law clears up the mess left by politics, but eventually politics prevails over law, C asserts, and A and B give their consent to his argument that amnesty for Park is required for getting the nation back to normal.

Clocks in Korea have ticked too fast since the summer of 2016 after years of rather slow, unimaginative politics and economic management under conservative rule. Park’s fall led to the worst ever crash of the conservatives at last year’s May 9 presidential election, allowing Moon to secure victory with 41 percent of the vote, 17 percentage points better than the top conservative contender.

Ten months have passed and the right remains seriously disorganized. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party under combative leader Hong Joon-pyo has vehemently challenged the government’s offer of an olive branch to Pyongyang, seeing the danger of walking into the North Korean trap and an eventual rift in relations with Washington.

The sudden warming of ties between the South and North since the PyeongChang Winter Olympics with the scheduling of summit talks in the Panmunjeom truce village as a result of the exchange of high-profile delegations has strengthened Moon’s stature and confidence.

But not all of the political left is buoyed, as political figures named in the surging #MeToo protests these days have overwhelmingly come from among their ranks. Social media circulates interesting political aphorisms these days. Some samples:

--The left harasses women, the right protects them.

--The left spreads hatred, the right builds pride.

--The left loathes the Republic of Korea, the right loves it.

--The left bleeds others, the right sheds its own sweat.

--The left denies reality, the right accepts truth.

--The left eats up the nation, the right nourishes it.

--The left serves the masses, the right works for the nation.

--The left sticks to the past, the right marches to the future.

--The left submits to the Reds, the right fights them.

Words like these appear on signs, placards and pamphlets used at conservatives’ demonstrations, which have recently grown in the number of participants waving the national flag Taegeukki. The leftists may not feel a serious threat because they are confident that cyberspace continues to be the domain of the basically liberal younger generation, but they need to correct the belief that the spirit of the “candlelight revolution” still hovers over Korea.

The Seoul prosecution’s demand of 30 years in jail and 118 billion won ($110.8 million) in fines for former President Park poured gasoline on the conservative protests’ fire. The Seoul District Court has already sentenced Choi to 20 years in prison, and the same bench is likely to give Park even heavier punishment in the final session on April 6.

The media should refrain from doing anything that could influence a trial by the court of law. So, it is inappropriate even to quote legal experts predicting that Park will get several more years than Choi’s sentence as the principal in the crime of corrupting the highest government office. Yet, how many patriotic people would approve of keeping the republic’s first and only female president behind bars for 20 or 30 years, or even longer?

Back to the three ex-journalist friends, their discussion moves over to the future course of a renewed inter-Korean dialogue. Moon should first tackle the question of the deferred joint exercises with the US forces before he meets Kim Jong-un at Panmunjeom on April 30. A go-between’s role between the main enemy and the strongest ally may be conceptually possible, but could end up a hollow dream, they conclude.

Unpredictability grows as Moon’s North Korea initiatives must see many hurdles on the road to denuclearization. Rightists tend to recall what happened after two previous summits in 2000 and 2007, not to mention the 1994 Geneva “agreed framework” and 2005 and 2007 agreements in six-party talks on the North’s “dismantlement” of its nuclear programs.

Thus, Moon must try to tidy up the domestic situation as soon as possible to provide for a more productive political order that is essential to deal effectively with the North in the days ahead. The three friends ended their chat with a wish for Moon’s use of his presidential prerogative to pardon Park when her sentence is finalized. She has waived her right to a defense and is likely to do the same at the appeals procedures.

Senses of pity and shame grow in public minds from confining the 66-year-old former president in a small cell. The present power holders lose little when they prove they are capable of tolerance and political accommodation after a stormy year of vindictiveness.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.