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Pressure mounts for Moon to decide on pardons

President Moon Jae-in walks down the stairs to deliver his New Year's address at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Monday. (Cheong Wa Dae)
President Moon Jae-in walks down the stairs to deliver his New Year's address at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Monday. (Cheong Wa Dae)

With Thursday’s final verdict delivered on former President Park Geun-hye, President Moon Jae-in is now under increased pressure to clarify his stance on possible pardons for the two former jailed presidents.

Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court upheld a 20-year prison term for Park in an influence-peddling trial that started more than three years ago. Now Park will have to serve a total of 22 years in prison, including a two-year prison term for her 2018 conviction in illegal meddling in the nomination process of the then-ruling Saenuri Party, a predecessor to the opposition People Power Party.

“The top court’s verdict has put an end to the influence-peddling scandal. This unfortunate event should not be repeated again,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Kang Min-seok said, declining to comment on the pardon issue.

A Cheong Wa Dae official hinted that President Moon might share his thoughts on the issue when he holds a New Year’s live press conference early next week.

Moon has remained silent on renewed controversy over the possible presidential pardons of Park and Lee Myung-bak, another former president jailed for abuse of power and bribery offenses, citing Park’s ongoing trial.

Pardons can only be granted at the president’s discretion after a final verdict is confirmed. 

In a KBS talk show appearance in May 2019, the president briefly expressed his stance on the issue. 

“I feel very regrettable about the situations facing the two former presidents. Because they are my direct predecessors, I feel greater pain and burden,” he said. “Considering the trial is still ongoing, it is difficult to comment on their pardons now.” 

Amid Moon’s prolonged silence, his every comment is being linked to the pardon issue.

On Jan. 7, the president stressed “unity” during his New Year’s greeting event with political and business leaders. His word choice, however, immediately stirred speculation that he may be considering pardons for the presidents from the conservative bloc in the name of national unity.

Cheong Wa Dae immediately denied such overinterpretation, and reportedly replaced the word “unity” with “embrace” in the president’s New Year’s address delivered Monday, possibly to prevent further confusion.

Political disputes over granting pardons to the two presidents were reignited early this month after ruling Democratic Party of Korea Floor Leader Rep. Lee Nak-yon, one of the key presidential hopefuls, publicly broached his intention to ask Moon to pardon the ex-presidents.

Since his remarks faced severe backlash from the public, rival parties have maintained a low-profile as they struggle to gauge public sentiment.

According to a recent Realmeter poll released on Jan. 8, 56.1 percent of respondents said the pardons would not contribute to national unity, while 38.8 percent responded in favor of the pardons.

In a radio interview Wednesday, Moon’s senior secretary for political affairs, Choi Jae-sung, also stressed that public consensus is the key consideration for the president’s decision.

“The president’s pardoning power comes from the public so the decision should be made from the perspective of the public,” he said.

By Lee Ji-yoon (