Former president Lee Myung-bak was back in the Dongbu Prison on the eastern outskirts of Seoul last Monday with the Supreme Court’s final sentence of 17 years. He was ordered to pay 18.78 billion won ($16.5 million) to the state in “fines” and “forfeiture,” though I don’t know exactly how they are different from each other.
By the time he finishes his prison term in 2036, Lee will be 95 years old, if he is blessed with a life that long. He was arrested in March 2018 on charges of abuse of power, misuse of corporate funds and bribery. The power abuse charge was dropped for lack of evidence, and he was convicted through the three stages of trial, primarily for financial offenses.
Seventeen years is an exceptionally heavy punishment for the Korean court to hand down on economic crimes. Lee was found guilty of diverting about 30 billion won from the funds of DAS Co., an auto parts maker which the court determined Lee owned, more than 13 years ago. When DAS was in a legal dispute with a firm named BBK, the Samsung Group paid lawyer fees to DAS in 2009. This constituted bribery because the then-president Lee was the recipient as de facto owner of the company.
Prosecutors have done a great job to reassemble Lee’s criminal charges after Moon Jae-in took power, bringing back the DAS-related suspicion that an independent counsel had dropped because of absence of evidence. The Supreme Court successfully played the key role in this drama that many South Koreans dubbed Moon’s political retaliation on behalf of his former boss, late president Roh Moo-hyun.
In my memory, the only economic offender who was given heavier punishment than Lee’s was Chang Young-ja, who is now serving her fourth prison sentence since the 1970s. Chang was twice sentenced to 15-year terms for large-scale frauds and lighter punishments for additional offenses while on parole. When she completes her latest four-year term, Chang, now 76, will have spent a total of 33 years in jail.
Lee Myung-bak, known as a hero of salaried workers who rose from an employee of Chung Ju-yung’s Hyundai Construction Co. to chairman of the top builder, served as the mayor of Seoul for four years before running for president with the Hannara Party. He won victory over government party candidate Chung Dong-young with the largest-ever margin of five million votes on the people’s expectation of reviving the national economy.
His five-year term was largely trouble-free with the country quickly recovering from the US-originated global financial crisis. He vigorously pushed economic utilization projects on the four major rivers crossing the peninsula and diplomatic efforts to secure energy resources overseas. His biggest failure was being unable to accommodate dissent from intra-party rival Park Geun-hye whose faction disrupted Lee’s important reform initiatives, including one to turn a planned administration capital to a major science-technology complex.
Another blot in the Lee Myung-bak presidency was his predecessor Roh’s suicide in 2009. Lee may have never imagined it at that time but the tragic incident was the seed of his tribulations today with a long prison term that made him join the club of Korea’s worst financial criminals side by side with Chang Young-ja.
Roh spent peaceful days at his hometown in the south coast county of Gimhae after handing the Blue House keys over to Lee, until the prosecution started investigating allegations of bribery involving his wife and daughter. One morning several days after he was interrogated at the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office, he leapt to his death from a rock near his home.
Moon Jae-in, Roh’s senior secretary and later chief of staff during his presidency (2003-2008), conducted his funeral and then tried to consolidate the leftist opposition force, which, however, remained tottering until the next presidential election. Lee may regard the “vertical change of power” within the same party to Park Geun-hye as his major achievement while many would rather attribute her victory to her father Park Chung-hee’s legacy.
The ruling party splintered between her loyalists and dissenters, including Lee’s faction, and Korea’s first woman president hid herself in a cocoon that she shared only with her female friend Choe Sun-sil. The result was her impeachment and imprisonment.
The people of Korea, justifiably proud of building an industrial and trading powerhouse of the 21st century world from a poor agrarian country half a century ago, are quite successful in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic now. So they cannot believe they deserve the shame of keeping two immediate ex-presidents in prison, one on a 17-year sentence and the other facing even longer incarceration of 20 years.
Park has given up defending herself in court. Lee also said he lost trust in the judiciary system. Being escorted out of his home in southern Seoul Monday, Lee told his supporters, “They can lock me up again but they cannot shut the truth up forever.” Pollsters have restrained asking public opinion on these cases, yet few would be seeing an adequate balance between crime and punishment.
Under the Moon presidency, investigations have started on a total of 106 officials of past governments, trials began for 95 of them, and 15 cases or 15.8 percent produced “not guilty” verdict in the primary court level, five times higher than the overall rate of acquittal. Peculiar in these “political” cases is the general trend of delay, averaging 265 days compared to 165 days in common criminal cases, according to an opposition lawmaker.
The slow pace of Lee’s and Park’s trials could partly be due to their defense strategies but ultimately responsible are Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo and 13 justices of the Supreme Court who seem to have little interest in proving independence of the judiciary these days. I would ask each of them if he or she truly believes that the two former presidents have committed crimes which should be paid for with every day of the many years beyond the limits of their natural lives.
Some conjure up the possibility of President Moon pardoning the two ex-presidents before his time is up, because a new president to be elected in May 2022 would do so in the name of “national reconciliation” anyway. If our Supreme Court hands down virtual life term to the former presidents counting on eventual amnesty by the president, the highest judges are giving up their mission as the final guardian of justice.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.