If I am asked to design a New Year calendar, I would draw three swans floating on a lake to depict the figures 2-0-2-2. A bright sun rising from the horizon shall be inserted between the first two birds to mark zero. This picture I hope could symbolize peace and stability that we are yearning for in the coming year after the extremely weary time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before the virus struck this country in early 2020, South Korean politics had remained volatile amid worsening partisan contentions following the presidential impeachment three years earlier. The leftist government of President Moon Jae-in made little success in its social and economic reform experiments while the new rulers worked hard to crush the previous power elite, who cried of political reprisal.
More than half of the populace now tell pollsters that they want a change of power. Still, the prospect for the presidential election next March is extremely hazy, chiefly since neither of the two major contenders has a clear edge over the opponent. The ruling party’s candidacy went to a lucky man whose intraparty contenders have disappeared in sex scandals and other misdeeds. Yet he is being chased by doubts about his own personal integrity.
In a sheer mystery of South Korean politics, the main opposition People Power Party chose as its candidate an ex-prosecutor who President Moon had used as the hatchet man in taking care of the past power, including two former presidents. Only after several months, Yoon Seok-youl lost Moon’s favor as he began slashing at tumors in the new power group. It is unfortunate that his “Mr. Justice” image is much smeared by dirty linen in his own home.
Yoon and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea are running neck and neck in opinion surveys these weeks, with pollsters producing percentage figures in the low 30s for both major candidates in a four-way contest together with one radical leftist and a middle-of-the roader. Since nominations, Lee and Yoon had to share many hours of their stumping to deal with endless exposures of blemishes in their family affairs.
Online and offline media and a large number of YouTubers have fed South Korean voters with a great deal of true and false information about the nominees’ spouses, offspring and other relatives dead and alive. The candidates themselves have been criminally charged by various civic groups and individuals who accuse them of personal improprieties and illegal campaigning in a record number of political litigations.
Yoon’s wife, Kim Kun-hee, an art exhibition specialist, made her first public appearance Sunday to apologize for her false and exaggerated resumes in past social activities. Meanwhile, Lee’s campaign is overshadowed by the suicides in succession of two of his underlings in the Seongnam City administration who were under the prosecution’s probe in a land development scandal that took place while Lee was the mayor.
President in South Korea is not quite an envious job when considering the not-so-honorable legacies of the highest office in the republic, which were once again demonstrated by the two former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who recently died in the space of a month. The two leaders of a 1979 military putsch had to find their last resting place away from the national cemetery and their families apologized for the harm they caused to the democratic development of the nation.
Former President Park Geun-hye is being freed, as President Moon ordered a special pardon from her 22-year jail term and 15 billion won ($12.6 million) in fines. She has already served four years and 10 months in prison convicted of bribery and abuse of power. Prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl had indicted the impeached president in 2017, and then arrested her immediate predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who was given a 17-year sentence on corruption charges.
Moon’s aides said he freed Park in pursuit of national harmony and in consideration of her poor health, but provided no explanation of why he excluded Lee from his year-end pardons, in which he also released a number of political activists. Whatever Moon might think of the difference between Park and Lee, there are many who find an emotional cause for the president’s refusal to treat the two equally.
When former President Roh Moo-hyun killed himself in 2009 during Lee’s presidency while a prosecution probe was underway into an alleged bribery involving the previous president’s wife, Moon, the political heir to Roh, called him the victim of political reprisal. If personal enmity has not been healed yet, the president could still free the 80-year-old conservative predecessor out of political calculations. Moon can forgive himself of his own version of political vendetta.
Winning a by-election, Moon started his five-year tenure with the program of “clearing the past wrongs.” Beside the two former presidents, three former chiefs of state intelligence and about 100 other senior officials in the previous administration were criminally charged and punished. While he pursued a detente with North Korea, meeting with Kim Jong-un three times, President Moon however showed little eagerness to embrace oppositionists to achieve real national harmony.
Moon had consistently referred to public sentiment against Park’s amnesty, but opinion polls showed overwhelming approval when it was announced. Whether it be of his own mind or from aides’ advice, Moon’s decision surely had multiple purposes: “You jailed Park, but we freed her,” the ruling party can now assert to embarrass former top prosecutor Yoon, expecting some desertion from his supporters. A rift may be created between Park loyalists and the rest in the opposition camp, while Lee Jae-myung could take advantage of Moon’s gesture of tolerance.
The president is given the constitutional prerogative of amnesty, an exception to the independence of the three branches of government, to use it precisely for the good of the nation. It should never be exercised for partisan interests or in exchange for his personal security after retirement.
Now that the relatively short history of democracy in Korea has introduced a variety of life after retirement of former presidents, Moon must by now be able to guess what he would reap from the seeds he sowed. We hope he will enjoy a quiet life after he moves down to his Yangsan County, South Gyeongsang Province, home from Cheong Wa Dae next May 1. His final acts that may include additional pardons should be something that particularly contribute to peaceful passage of power leaving least enmity in their wake. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times during the 1990s. - Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com