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[Kim Myong-sik] ‘Crime and punishment’ of former president

Last week, the Seoul Appellate Court handed down a sentence of 17 years’ imprisonment to Lee Myung-bak, who was president of the South Korea from Feb. 25, 2008, to Feb. 24, 2013. The judge added two more years to the 15-year term the Seoul Central District Court had given him in October 2018.

There are some possibilities of a change in his future. The Supreme Court may deliver him a different final verdict – if he chooses to appeal. The Justice Ministry may suspend the execution of the punishment on whatever ground Minister Choo Mi-ae or any of her successors considers appropriate. President Moon Jae-in can grant a pardon to his predecessor using his presidential prerogative.

In college journalism classes and cub reporters training sessions, the traditional dictum is to avoid trying to influence court trials with your reporting. This perhaps is one of the most hypocritical teachings because reporters almost always have an opinion about court cases they are interested in and therefore are tempted to reflect it in their stories. I, too, would now risk breaking this rule.

The appeals court sentenced Lee to a longer prison term, acknowledging a greater sum of bribes he received from Samsung Group and others than recognized in the district court trial. The court accepted prosecution charges that Lee was bribed by Samsung via an auto parts maker named DAS that he effectively owned. The court accepted that Korea’s largest conglomerate bankrolled DAS’s legal fees for a suit it filed in the US in exchange for the pardoning of its chief Lee Kun-hee.

Former President Lee was a successful businessman. He shifted to politics in the early 1990s but continued running his own business even after he changed his career, according to the findings of the prosecution. In contrast to his successor Park Geun-hye, he is condemned chiefly for his deeds as a business owner rather than for what he did as president. On the other hand, Park was sentenced to 33 years in prison for wrongdoings in the Blue House, helped by her close confidante Choi Sun-sil.

Park’s 33-year jail term, if finalized, will be completed when she becomes 100 years old; Lee will turn 95 at the end of his prison term. My heart sinks when I think of my country following South America in terms of presidential fates. International observers must by now remember Lee and Park alongside such inglorious names as Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina.

Whenever I read news items about the rulings on the two immediate former presidents at district and appeals courts, I wondered how conscientious and confident the judges were when they wrote down those verdicts or if they had considered any possibility that the highest court could mitigate the punishments afterward.

Lee’s former colleagues claim that the whole thing was a political vendetta. All Cabinet ministers and senior presidential secretaries of his administration joined together to issue a statement right after the Feb. 19 sentence, in which they accused the judges of “forsaking our trust in the rule of law and abandoning their conscience” to join in the present power holders’ “political retaliation of the cruelest form.”

Then what had he done to face political reprisals? Those who support the political retaliation theory attribute it to former president Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide while he was under prosecution investigation the year after Lee took power. How, then, is it possible to take political revenge in the present democratic system of Korea? Yes, it is, the rightist opposition says, because law enforcement, including the judiciary, is under government control.

What do we find in the court proceedings of Lee’s case to support the political vendetta claim? The former president’s defense points out that since the Seoul Appellate Court started his trial late in 2018, the court has changed the panel in charge three times in order to replace judges possibly sympathetic to the defendant.

The defense called Kim Baek-jun, the decadeslong private secretary to the former president, as a key witness to dispute details of the prosecution charges. Kim ignored subpoenas nine times (because he was unwilling to confront his former boss in the courtroom, according to the defense) but, instead, he helped the prosecution draw up a triangular connection between Samsung, DAS and the former president to prove his bribery. Kim was also indicted for his role in Lee’s money deals, but he was acquitted.

Lee, Korea’s first president with business background, wanted to refine his image with a crusade for law and order and clean politics. He encouraged the prosecution to dig into suspected corruption involving the family of his predecessor Roh. Following a daylong interview with prosecutors, the man of fiery character leaped to his death from a cliff. The tragedy put his followers into what amounted to a domestic exile for years until they caught a chance in the candlelight protests of the latter 2016.

The sad fates of Korean presidents resumed as Lee followed Park into jail in the space of six months soon after Moon took office. A wholly new political war has commenced, as left-wing rulers are endeavoring to secure a firm grip on power by imprisoning the two conservative ex-presidents for corruption.

Their campaign to obliterate past conservative political and economic achievements flourished briefly, with the appeal of populist policies, but soon floundered as they failed to produce practical benefits. Over the past three years, we have seen the alternative political force, calling themselves liberal leftists or socialists, conduct reform in every social sector, upending existing systems. Rightists warn of budding totalitarianism.

In the meantime, the new power has had enough of its own faults exposed in the deeds and narratives of its champion figures to make their condemnation of so-called “old evils” look increasingly unwarranted. No privilege should be demanded nor awarded in the proceedings even for ex-presidents but their prison terms of 17 years for Lee and 33 years for Park are extraordinary and should be seen as retaliatory.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He retired as managing editor of The Korea Times. -- Ed.
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