Ruling party head Lee Nak-yon made the headlines on New Year’s Day by raising the need to set free two former conservative presidents jailed for corruption charges.
Speaking to reporters Friday after paying respects at the National Cemetery in Seoul, Lee said he would ask President Moon Jae-in “at an appropriate time” to grant pardons to ex-Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. He added that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea should play an active role in the lead-up to the possible pardoning of the disgraced former leaders to help promote national unity.
Former President Lee, who was in office from 2008 to 2013, has been serving a 17-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement, which was confirmed by the Supreme Court in October. His successor Park has been in jail since 2017, when she was impeached and arrested over a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.
Later this month, the highest court will give its judgment on a lower court’s decision to sentence her to 20 years in prison. The confirmation of her sentence will leave Park, along with her predecessor, eligible for a presidential pardon.
Responding to ruling party leader Lee’s remarks, the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae said discussions could be made on whether to grant pardons to them if a recommendation was made, apparently easing its stance on the matter.
Despite his emphasis on national unity, Lee appeared to have made political calculations in taking the delicate initiative.
He might have judged that granting pardons to the imprisoned former presidents would help enhance the chances of the liberal ruling party winning the crucial mayoral by-elections in the country’s two largest cities -- Seoul and Busan -- in April and the presidential election in March next year.
The move could lead to an increase in support from more moderate voters, who are expected to hold the key to the outcomes of the upcoming electoral contests.
Potential opposition candidates for the mayoral by-elections have been well ahead of their possible contenders from the ruling party in recent polls. A growing portion of the electorate also want to see a change of power in the next presidential vote, as they feel increasingly disillusioned with the Moon government’s policy failures and attempts to block investigations into sensitive cases involving Moon and his associates.
This voter sentiment is casting a shadow on the political future of the ruling party head, who is planning to run in the next presidential race after leading his party to a victory in the mayoral by-elections.
The move to pardon the two former presidents might also be seen as aimed at causing divisions in the conservative opposition force.
The current leadership of the main opposition People Power Party has sought to increase voter support by apologizing for misdeeds by the two jailed former presidents, who had been elected on the ticket of the predecessors of the party. But some of its lawmakers and other party members associated with the ex-presidents remain against the apology.
Kim Chong-in, the interim leader of the PPP, reserved his position when asked by reporters Friday to comment on the ruling party chief’s remarks.
The issue of granting pardons to the two former presidents needs to be approached solely from humanitarian considerations beyond political calculations.
Now that the political evaluation and criminal punishment of them have been fully made, there can hardly be a meaning in extending their imprisonment.
Former Presidents Lee and Park, who turn 80 and 69, respectively, this year, are both in ill health. It will be detrimental to the nation’s international reputation to keep them behind bars. Furthermore, there have recently been massive coronavirus infections among inmates at the detention centers where they are serving their sentences.
President Moon is well advised to give a special pardon to his two immediate predecessors as soon as possible, regardless of any request from the ruling party leader.
With slightly over a year left before his five-year tenure ends, Moon should now focus on enhancing national unity and building a bridge to the next administration. Pardoning the two former presidents could be the first significant step in that direction.