Impact of Moon Jae-in’s Pardon to Park Geun-hye as South Korea goes to Polls on 9 March – An Assessment
Prof Rajaram Panda

At a time when the security environment and geo-strategic considerations of key countries in the Asian region are witnessing significant churning, with each country repositioning its foreign policy priorities in response to the demands of the time, one important player in this game, South Korea, shall be going to the polls to elect a new President on 9 March. This will be the 20th presidential election and eighth since democratisation. Under the South Korean constitution, the president is restricted to a single five-year term in office, which means the incumbent President Moon Jae-in is ineligible to run for a second term.

Seen as a moderate, Moon tried his best to secure peace by reaching out to North Korea and was instrumental in facilitating three summits with the then US President Donald Trump. Though these summits failed to yield any tangible result, yet they did reflect South Korea’s sincerity to secure peace in the peninsula. The election of 9 March becomes significant because if a conservative wins, Moon’s liberal approach would be surely undone, heralding a completely new scenario. Based on this assumption, it would be premature to foresee the consequences what would unfold and what response North Korea would come up with.

In a surprise announcement for Moon’s detractors, the Moon government announced the decision to pardon 3,094 individuals as a special gesture to pardon convicts in the special New Year presidential pardon. In the list, former President Park Geun-hye, 69, who served as the president from 2013-17 and who was convicted on charges including abuse of power and bribery, and serving a 22-year prison term, is included while her predecessor Lee Myung-bak serving a 17-year similar charges is not included in the list. This special pardon announcement shall have effect on the outcome of the March election as opposition parties call Moon’s decision a political move aimed at creating a divide and becoming a factor that may sway the elections outcome.[1] Among the prominent persons pardoned in the list is Lee Seok-ki, a pro-DPRK lawmaker convicted of plotting a rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government in case of a war with North Korea. While the announcement of pardon may impact presidential election in March 2022, it would have little effect on Inter-Korean relations.[2]

However, while the main opposition People Power Party welcomed the pardon of their former leader, key party members criticised President Moon for making a “political move” to create a divide in the conservative bloc. Despite Moon’s gesture, his ruling Democratic Party of Korea feels that Moon’s decision to grant pardon to his rival could disappoint its supporters. Also, Yoon Suk-yeol who is to contest on behalf of the People Power Party in March felt that Moon’s gesture could be a critical factor in the elections. It could have two repercussions, either pull together support or divide the party.

Interestingly, Yoon was the prosecutor who investigated the massive corruption scandal which indicted Park which finally landed her in prison in 2017 after she was impeached in 2016. Even during her term as President, Yoon had a run-in when he investigated the role of National Intelligence Agency, the country’s spy agency, which allegedly sought to influence public opinion in favour of Park when she was in the race in December 2012 for the President. As a result, Yoon was demoted following his claims that he also received outside pressure to water down the probe. The conservatives might now blame that Yoon was responsible for Park’s fall and this consideration might influence the March election when Yoon himself would be in the race. Moon’s decision to pardon could dent Democratic Party’s fortune as he himself had come to power after Park fell from grace. At that time, the liberals had capitalised and earned confidence of the people whom it promised a government that would be free from corruption that marked his predecessor’s tenure. That atmosphere could be somewhat different now.

Though the ruling party’s presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung said he “respects” Moon’s decision to pardon Park after initially opposing, the Blue House denied that Moon’s decision is politically aimed and claimed it was cleared by the ruling party. On the issue of as to why Lee Myung-bak’s case for pardon was not viewed on the similar basis, it was argued that both the cases are different and that Lee’s case did not merit for special pardon. In granting pardon to Park, Moon also considered her deteriorating health and sought the understanding of those who opposed the decision.[3] Lee, however, demanded Park to make another apology to the people after her release.

In grace, Park apologised to the people and expressed gratitude to Moon via her lawyer Yoo Young-ha for his unwavering support. The pardon took effect on 31 December and included reinstatement of former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, who was imprisoned from 2015 to 2017 for taking some 900 million won ($750,000) of illegal political funds. The list also included 38 entrepreneurs and small business operators, two political and labour activists, as well as reinstatement of one person who was charged for illegal abortion.

Apart from pardon, special reduction of punishment was also announced for 983,051 people, out of which 2,271 had received driver’s license suspensions. These concessions also could have been motivated by considerations to reduce suffering because of the pandemic and to promote unity in the society. The political ramifications could however be different and directly or indirectly influence the March election.

No wonder, political parties of various stances came out with mixed reactions. [4] Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil said the party “honours” the president’s decision, which comes from “a constitutional right of the president”. Other opposition parties had different takes.

The presidential candidate of the minor opposition People‘s Party, Ahn Cheol-soo, felt the pardon for Park was an apparent attempt to compensate for the pardon of Han Myeong-sook, former Prime Minister during the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration, and the parole of Lee Seok-ki, a former left-wing lawmaker convicted of instigating a rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government. The People Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol dismissed that it was a trade-off with exoneration of Han and welcomed the pardon. His party colleagues, however, disagreed, saying that there were political motivations behind Moon’s special pardon announcement. However, Moon’s decision to pardon Park and not Lee would ignite tensions between pro-Park and pro-Lee factions in the major opposition parties.

What has transpired from this pardon saga is that presidential elections in South Korea are always riddled with scandals, a sad reflection of a country taking pride on its democracy. So, the race to decide the country’s next president has become a contest of scandals with each political party digging deep if its chosen candidate has any corruption history and if unearthed, work for their political advantage. In this game of tit-for-tat the voters are confused in making their choice of the candidate suitable to govern the country. Some people feel that they shall have no choice than to choose a lesser evil since they see most riddled with serious flaws.

Even the presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Party Lee Jae-myung is riddled with a series of scandals related to his family. Allegations surfaced that his 29-year-old son had engaged in illegal gambling from January 2019 to July 2020 via online poker. It was also alleged that Lee’s elder son visited a massage parlour for sex. Lee is also being accused of shielding his nephew who brutally killed two women in 2006 and also provided legal defence by referring to mental illness. Lee is also being accused of aiding his aides in a land development project that came under investigation. The opposition is going to pounce on him for all these misdeeds and this might ruin his chances at the poll battle.

Interestingly, Lee’s rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the main opposition People Power Party is not free from blemish either. Yoon’s mother-in-law Choi was sentenced to one year in prison for forging a financial document used in a past deal for a land purchase. Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, was also accused for falsifying her credentials when applying for teaching jobs and for academic plagiarism. Kim also faced allegations of stock price manipulation related to used cars dealer Deutsch Motors.

Against this background, can one expect that the candidates in the race rethink of their chances and either withdraw from the race or offer convincing explanations of their innocence? The truism is that politics in a democracy is a complicated game and candidates addicted to power can go extra miles to have their way. It is up to the voters to make their judicious choice in electing the right candidate so that the interests of the country are served. It is to be hoped that the candidates in the race would remember that South Korea has a history of punishing and pardoning former presidents as exemplified in the case of Park Guen-hye and conduct accordingly once elected to the office.

With the pardon announcement coming less than three months before the presidential election on 9 March, two candidates from the governing and the main opposition parties are in a neck-to-neck race. A poll conducted by Gallup Korea recently showed that while Lee Je-myung of the ruling party had 36 per cent of support, his rival Yoon Suk-yeol had 35 per cent. The primary consideration for Moon to pardon Park could have been motivated by his desire to improve the administration’s image as the people would not have wanted their former leader to suffer for decades in the prison. They might have conceded that she could have done something wrong while in office but would not have rejoiced for her to suffer for so long a period in deteriorating health in prison. Moon could have probably sensed and understood the psychology of the people and executed a master stroke by pardoning the disgraced Park.

However, if Park becomes now a rallying point and appeals the voters to support Yoon, thereby unite the voters on the opposition side, Moon’s gamble could have backfired. Politics being a funny game, nothing is easy to predict and a day’s unexpected development could undo months of preparation and hard work for the candidate that looked to be the winner. Whosoever emerges the winner can ill afford to take a soft approach to the nation’s security issue as North Korea and China are unlikely to abandon their nuisance value. As regards India’s policy towards South Korea and the Korean peninsula is concerned, one shall remain compelled to remain optimistic that the ties shall remain robust as South Korea’s relevance in the Indo-Pacific context shall gather greater salience in the coming months and years.

Endnotes :

[1]Jo He-rim, “How special pardon for ex-President Park may affect March election”, Korea Herald, 24 December 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211224000544
[2]Chaewon Chung, “Moon Jae-in pardons predecessor Park Geun-hye and pro-North Korea lawmaker”, , 24 December 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/12/moon-jae-in-pardons-predecessor-park-geun-hye-and-pro-north-korea-lawmaker/
[3]Jo He-rim, “Former president Park Geun-hye granted special pardon”, Korea Herald, 24 December 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211224000212; Kim Jaewon, “South Korea's Moon pardons former President Park Geun-hye”, Nikkei Shimbun, 24 December 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/South-Korea-s-Moon-pardons-former-President-Park-Geun-hye
[4]Shim Woo-hyun, “Parties offer mixed reactions n Park’s pardon”, Korea Herald, 24 December 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211224000515

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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