Last week’s sentencing of former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak to 15 years in prison and a fine of 13 billion won (US$11.5 million) has sent shockwaves through Seoul, and around the world.
Although many are shocked to learn of the degree of corruption that exists in South Korea, no small number of my friends expressed their delight to see that there is a country that is capable of putting a corrupt leader in jail and making public his malfeasances.
Lee, a former chief executive of Hyundai Construction who made a fortune in shady development projects, including those carried out during his term as mayor of Seoul, has much in common with US President Donald Trump in his approach to business. But unlike with Trump, I have not seen any conservative groups rallying to support Lee.
Many, however, are rallying to demand the release of another former Korean president now in jail: Park Geun-hye. They feel that South Korea’s first (and so far, only) female president was unfairly treated in her trial, and in the media, and that she has been made a scapegoat for all that is wrong in Korean society.
Park was caught up in numerous illegalities. But unlike Lee, she was not the driving force in them. She was in over her head, going along with recommendations. To sentence her to 33 years – more than most sentences for murder – struck her supporters as too political. Lee did not get as long a sentence, in spite of his greater role in criminal conspiracies.
Particularly disturbing about Park’s case was the effort to blame massive institutional corruption on two women – Park and her close confidante Choi Soon-sil – while numerous male policy advisers slipped away. There are historical precedents: Blaming corruption on women who indulge in luxury goods recalls the campaign against Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong’s consort Yang Guifei as a way to get even with the powerful Yang family – classic patriarchal thinking.
In some ways it was Park’s lack of political skill, and her inexplicable stubbornness, that brought her down. She could have resigned immediately and blamed others. But she refused to resign, and she refused to blame those around her. This is not a defense of her appalling lack of action in the case of the deadly 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, but rather a suggestion that we examine wider corrupt political cultures before we throw stones.
Current President Moon Jae-in has a chance to demonstrate leadership and to put himself above partisan politics by pardoning Park. That would be a call for South Korea to come together as a nation. And it would set the stage for a more forgiving approach to politics – something desperately needed at a moment when Koreans struggle to overcome decades of mistrust between North and South.
It is essential first to bring South Korea together so as to create a momentum toward understanding, forgiving and acceptance. After all, whether it is the increasing gap between rich and poor, the spread of deserts or the rise of oceans, Northerners and Southerners may have more in common than they thought.
If we are going to be understanding of Kim Jong Un and his family and if we are going to flatter Donald Trump for the sake of reconciliation, it would be logical to be more understanding of Park.
She is a tragic and isolated figure. She deserves sympathy even if her acts were irresponsible.
The best analogy for Park may be Patty Hearst, the daughter of a major political figure. Hearst, daughter of the powerful and much-resented American publisher William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by the American terrorist group Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. With them, she committed a number of crimes, including bank robbery.
She was later captured and tried for the crimes she committed with her abductors, and jailed. President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s sentence in recognition of the fact that she had been deprived of her freedom and she was compelled to engage in illegal activities, even if she eventually participated in some willingly.
Park was orphaned by the lethal politics of emerging South Korea. Her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was shot to death in 1974 during an attempt to kill her father, president Park Chung-hee. Five years later, he was assassinated by his spy chief.
A lonely and confused Park Geun-hye, abandoned by mainstream Korea, fell under the influence of charismatic religious leader Choi Tae-min and came to trust him completely. Her association with Choi Tae-min’s daughter – the now notorious Choi Soon-sil – dates back to that period. It is doubtful if Park would have been entangled in corruption without Choi.
President Moon should not pardon Park to get votes, or to increase his popularity. But it would demonstrate statesmanship and would open the full political spectrum of Koreans to join in the promising engagement with North Korea.
We should remember that Park spoke of a “unification bonanza” and sought to engage North Korea – albeit without success. She defied the US administration of Barack Obama in active engagement with both China and Russia as part of an effort to establish a Northeast Asian community.
Finally, let me pre-empt a possible charge that I lack partiality because Park once praised my book A Republic of Korea of Which Koreans Are Ignorant.
I appreciated her words. However, I think that the degree to which she endorsed my book, and other ideas that I presented in articles in Korean media, suggests that Park is more complex than is generally recognized. After all, she had a complex father – an authoritarian nation builder over whom Koreans today are deeply divided.
During her administration, I wrote articles denouncing the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system, condemning the neoliberal economics of her administration and questioning the fundamental strategy of the US-ROK alliance. Most presidents would have stayed as far as possible from a critic like me. Park was different.
South Korea needs all the goodwill it can muster on all sides as it tries to grapple with the complex economic and security challenges ahead. A pardon for Park could have immense significance for the nation at this time.