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[Kim Myong-sik] New S. Korean president up for political peace

Yoon Suk-yeol is the 13th president of the Republic of Korea since its founding in 1948. Yet, he is officially called the 20th president as they count the number of four-year constitutional terms, including two short transitional tenures.

Syngman Rhee, the first president of the republic, held the office for 12 years in three consecutive terms until he resigned in 1960 following a student uprising. Yoon Po-sun succeeded him as the titular head of state in a parliamentary system, but he was soon removed by a military coup, which installed Gen. Park Chung-hee as president. Following Park’s demise in 1979, Choi Kyu-hah served as an interim president until Chun Doo-hwan took over.

Roh Tae-woo (1987-1992) dedicated a new presidential office building in the existing Cheong Wa Dae compound to mark the fresh start of a democratically elected administration, but the designer emphasized more prestige than efficiency, inviting criticism that it rather resembled a royal palace.

Successive presidents until the latest Moon Jae-in used to blame the overly spacious, majestic layout of their office for their perceived isolation from the people and even from their aides. However, they failed to choose an alternative place to relocate the physical center of power and sank deeper into self-inflicted deafness to people’s voices.

Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) and Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), who both were heroes of pro-democracy movements against military dictators, left Cheong Wa Dae in disgrace amid public scorn at the corruption of their children. Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), a human rights advocate, killed himself after being interviewed by prosecutors over bribery involving his wife.

Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) restored the rightist rule and passed it to Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) but the two conservative presidents met growing civic discontent with their indifference to grassroot lives, which burst out in candlelight demonstrations. Park, the first woman president, was fired through impeachment, spurred by the mainstream media that portrayed her being manipulated by a female friend.

Thus, the republic has written a cruel history about its presidents while the nation has moved up from a poor war-ravaged country to a fine example of democratic progress and economic development. Moon Jae-in left Cheong Wa Dae last week under hearty farewell from his supporters, but few are absolutely sure he will remain an envious exception among former presidents.

The conservative opposition has persistently accused him of breach of laws and, as the privilege of presidential immunity was lifted at the end of his tenure, some civic groups and individuals filed criminal charges against him. The former ruling Democratic Party of Korea succeeded in railroading legislation essentially aiming at preventing the prosecution from initiating criminal actions against high officials, but few believe it can guarantee their undisturbed life in retirement.

Under the new law, police are to take over from the prosecution the task of law enforcement on serious crimes. However, in most countries, police are considered easier for politicians to control than prosecutors. Therefore, it is only a matter of time that police authorities start issuing summonses to members of the outgoing administration in connection with some notable cases of power abuse and negligence of official duties.

“He who sows reaps.” This is the tenet in the minds of people who foresee the inevitability of retaliation in any form against members of the Moon administration, which incarcerated a large number of high-ranking officials from the previous right-wing administrations for various improprieties. About 100 men and women were prosecuted, including two former presidents and four former chiefs of the state intelligence apparatus.

Lee Myung-bak was convicted chiefly of non-political, business fraud in the operation of a family-owned manufacturing firm which brought him 17 years in jail, while Park Geun-hye was given a prison term twice as long for arranging forced donations to her longtime confidant. Moon gave Park a special amnesty last month but did not pardon Lee, citing negative public opinion.

Those who see plain political revenge in the heavy punishments of the two former presidents must be looking for examples of Moon’s and his colleagues’ misdeeds that deserved penal responsibility. They talk about the president’s interference in the 2018 local elections to help his old friend get elected mayor of a metropolitan city and his known pressures on energy officials to make a false report to justify an early closure of a nuclear power plant.

Yoon Suk-yeol was an unknown name to most South Koreans until Moon appointed him as prosecutor general in the middle of his term to complete the task of uprooting “past evils.” As he shifted his target “from the dead power to the live power,” the incumbents banded together to throw him out. This internal battle steeply raised Yoon’s popularity to be spotlighted as the standard bearer for the opposition.

It is nothing short of a miracle that Yoon was elected president just one year after he resigned as the top prosecutor in a leftist government and eight months after he joined the right-wing opposition party. It indicates the enormity of people’s disappointment with the government that replaced the one they dumped for incompetence.

The presidential transition committee, closing its monthlong operation, announced a 30-item list of policy objectives chosen for the new administration, yet there was no hint of what it needs to do to right the past wrong on an individual basis. From practical standpoint, a president who is facing formidable obstruction to his administration from the opposition with a huge parliamentary majority may be tempted to use his power over the criminal justice system as leverage in dealing with his opponents.

With his full career in law enforcement, Yoon must have his own judgment on the penal responsibility of his immediate predecessor. Sooner or later, the new president will have to decide whether the vicious circle of political retaliation should stop at his time.

There was an impressive scene on the stage of President Yoon’s inaugural ceremony last week where Park, Lee’s wife Kim Yoon-ok, Mr. and Mrs. Moon Jae-in and the new presidential couple exchanged greetings with broad smiles. Spectators only guessed the sentiments that passed through the hearts of these special individuals. Peace be with them and the whole nation that passed through tense years in an unnecessary political war. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of The Korea Times. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (
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