Detained former President Park Geun-hye enters Seoul St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul in a wheelchair on Tuesday, for treatment of a chronic illness. (Yonhap)
Rumors that former President Park Geun-hye and Samsung Group heir Lee Jae-yong may receive presidential pardons or paroles are increasingly making the rounds in political circles as of late amid growing calls for amnesty for the two figures jailed over corruption-related charges.
Such speculations are being circulated widely with the Aug. 15 Liberation Day, an anniversary on which South Korea's presidents have often used their right to special pardon as part of efforts for promoting national unity, less than one month away, especially ahead of the presidential election in March.
Park has been serving a combined 22-year prison term since March 2017 after being impeached that year over far-reaching corruption charges and an influence-peddling scandal.
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee was sentenced to five years in prison in August 2017 for bribing Park and her longtime friend to win government support for a smooth father-to-son transfer of managerial power at Samsung. He was freed in 2018 after a high court reduced the sentence to 2 1/2 years, suspended for four years. He, however, was sent back to jail again after being sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison by the same court in a retrial.
President Moon Jae-in has remained adamant toward the topic of amnesty for Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who is also serving a prison sentence for corruption charges. The pardon issue first became a topic of national debate in January, when Rep. Lee Nak-yon, then chairman of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), said he would recommend Moon consider granting amnesty to the two former presidents.
Moon has emphasized the need to consider public consensus on the politically sensitive matter and its possible impact on national unity. The president also said it was "heartbreaking and regrettable" that the aged former presidents, who are reportedly in poor health, have ended up in jail.
But with Moon's term nearing its end and the landscape of political partisanship having gotten worse, especially after the DP's crushing defeat in the April by-elections, observations are being made that Moon could use the pardon as a chance to help bridge divisions across the political aisle.
On Tuesday, Park was hospitalized at a non-correctional commercial hospital in southern Seoul to treat several chronic illnesses. Her hospitalization, the second so far this year, could be taken into consideration by Moon in deliberating on whether or not to pardon his predecessor. As for former President Lee, the general consensus suggests that he is likely to be excluded from pardon deliberations this time around. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled that Samsung heir apparent Lee has been included in a justice ministry list of inmates subject to preliminary reviews for parole.
According to ministry regulations, inmates who have served more than 60 percent of their sentences could be eligible for parole reviews. Lee is expected to complete 60 percent of his total jail sentence by the end of this month.
The president could also offer Lee a pardon to free the Samsung heir from employment restrictions that come along with paroles, thus giving him free rein to steer Samsung's management.
Observers say Moon could go beyond parole and offer a full-on pardon to Lee, considering the administration's priority of pursuing economic growth in the post-pandemic era.
South Korea's business lobby groups have also asked Cheong Wa Dae for Lee's pardon, raising concerns over the absence of leadership at Samsung, the world's largest memory chip maker, while its rivals are ramping up investments to address a global chip shortage.
Last month, Rep. Song Young-gil, chairman of the ruling party, also suggested the need to free the vice chairman, stating that Samsung needs the leader of the conglomerate in office, not in jail, in order for investments to be made.
The topic of a pardon for Lee remains a divisive issue, as Samsung Group is considered a source of national pride among South Koreans while facing growing calls to improve its corporate governance and transparency to dispel the association with corruption cases and reduce so-called owner family risks.
A public poll in May showed that 64 percent of the public supported the idea of granting Lee a pardon. About a month later in June, however, some 130 civic groups called for the suspension of all discussions on pardoning or paroling Lee, saying it will undermine democracy and the rule of law in South Korea. (Yonhap)