While watching the live TV broadcast of the Seoul District Court’s sentencing on Park Geun-hye last Friday afternoon, people must have had several different images of the disgraced former president passing through their depressed minds.
The defendant’s seat was empty, as Park has boycotted her hearings since October last year. Filling the space in the courtroom between the two state-appointed defense lawyers, in my screen of imagination, was Park taking the oath of office at the pinnacle of her career on the chilly morning of Feb. 25, 2013. Other pictures at later stages of her presidency flashed like a slide show, including one of her apology over the Choi Soon-sil scandal.
Mistakes she had made during the four years from her inauguration to her dismissal by the Constitutional Court on March 9 that called for the 24-year imprisonment and 18 billion won ($16.9 million) in fines were illustrated in the 16 charges the court accepted out of the 18 filed by the prosecution. While Judge Kim Se-yun read them over the course of 110 minutes, other deeds of hers that could have done something good for the nation were forgotten.
Although she had given up defending herself in the courtroom, the state-appointed lawyers for Park could appeal against the heavy punishment. The prosecution, unsatisfied with the sentence six years shorter than its demand of 30 years, may also seek another judgment by the Seoul Appellate Court, possibly prolonging the case to reach the Supreme Court.
Whatever happens to Park at the end of the legal proceedings, whereupon many expect a pardon by President Moon Jae-in sometime when it is deemed politically appropriate, the nation is enduring yet another dark chapter in its constitutional history. Park’s immediate predecessor, Lee Myung-bak has also been indicted and is under arrest after exhaustive investigations on suspicion of corruption and abuse of power.
Some South Koreans may feel a sense of pride in their democratic system, which brings former heads of state to justice without concerns over the stability of government. But, many others, regardless of their ideological inclinations, rather take it as a mark of shame that their democracy is still running a drama of ex-presidents locked up in prison cells before the pitying eyes of the world.
We need to accept Park’s sentence as a punishment for us all. After her election with a comfortable majority, the nation’s administrative and political oversight functions remained blind to what was happening in the highest office. Not only her Blue House staff, but also the powerful elite in the ruling camp did not attempt to check the president while she neglected her constitutional duties and shrugged many of them off to a close confidante.
When President Moon observes the first anniversary of his administration next month, he will find the criminal prosecution of his two immediate predecessors as uncomfortable highlights of his first year in office. By now, a constitutional amendment to “upgrade” the 31-year-old charter, a product of compromise between pro-democracy and authoritarian forces, and direct dialogue with the nuclear-armed North Korea must occupy the best part of his brain, but he should also give deep thoughts to the vicious circle of presidential misfortune.
The two ex-presidents have been additionally accused, along with three former directors of the National Intelligence Service, of colluding to misuse the spy organization’s official funds. This was a surprising stretch of the probe because the NIS had traditionally enjoyed flexible execution of its budget under the excuse of clandestine operations. Its funds were often hidden in the coffers of other agencies and were used to meet special needs of some important offices in the past.
Clearly an illegitimate practice, this form of budget diversion started when the NIS was an omnipotent agency in line with a Korean CIA. The basic question is: If such ignoring of the rules of government finance had been repeated as an established practice, how justifiable it is to bring criminal charges on people who were continuing or condoning the bureaucratic aberration before a new administration decided to discontinue it?
About 50 people have been indicted in cases related to Park’s misdeeds and half a dozen in connection with Lee’s. But the current investigations into “jeokpye,” or past evils, deal with many kinds of official business that were taken for granted as ordinary exercises of administrative authority. Most of those 50 would have remained free if the new administration had not chosen to deny the past in the name of the “candlelight revolution.”
Lee posed as the victim of political persecution when he was arrested last month, though he admitted what he had done might not have met today’s standards of justice. Of course, these standards evolve, but I am hardly convinced that a suit Lee’s friend presented him as a gift upon his election in 2007 could constitute bribery, as is included in the prosecution’s charges against him.
If Moon had time to read the Seoul court’s verdict of Park, he would somehow be able to draw a line between what he can do as president of this republic and what he cannot. The court document can serve as a presidential service manual: If he wants to live as a free citizen after retirement, never try to evict a dissenting bureau chief in the central government or instruct relevant authorities to stop subsidizing artists producing unflattering works about the government.
There is little chance the president will be tempted to demand certain business firms donate money to any public service organizations, but he should still keep in mind that a simple suggestion can be regarded as coercion, depending on the circumstances. The president should never ask a state-invested corporation to form a sports team or sponsor an existing one. Interference in the personnel affairs of a commercial bank has proven to be a grave taboo, though it was routine for presidents to do so just a few administrations back.
To serve as president of the Republic of Korea is hazardous to peace in one’s later years. This unfortunate culture must be discontinued. Some argue that reducing the powers of the president through a constitutional amendment is an indirect way of making such a change. Moon could seek that path, having not opted for the easier, more desirable approach -- which they call tolerance.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.