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Pardon of ex-president could sway Korea's presidential election

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Jailed former president Park Geun-hye enters Seoul St. Mary's Hospital in Seocho District, Tuesday, for shoulder treatment. Yonhap
Jailed former president Park Geun-hye enters Seoul St. Mary's Hospital in Seocho District, Tuesday, for shoulder treatment. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

Exonerating jailed former president Park Geun-hye is emerging as a variable in Korea's presidential election next year, with President Moon Jae-in appearing to be contemplating whom he will grant presidential pardons to on the upcoming Aug. 15 Liberation Day.

Rumors of a possible pardon for Park emerged earlier this week, as multiple news outlets here reported that Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong's case was under review by the Ministry of Justice for a Liberation Day release. Lee was jailed for bribing Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil to win government support for him inheriting control of the Samsung conglomerate from his father, the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

Though the justice ministry did not confirm whether Lee was included in its review list for pardons, liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairman Song Young-gil said Tuesday that "Lee might be undergoing a reviewed for a pardon because he will have finished 60 percent of his jail term in August," and "the government seems to be considering the semiconductor industry's demand (for Lee's exoneration) and public sentiment."

Since Lee's case is intertwined with that of Park, any ruling on Lee is anticipated to affect a pardon for Park. Cheong Wa Dae said that it has nothing to confirm concerning a pardon for the former president, but Yoo Seung-min, a former lawmaker and presidential contender from the conservative main opposition People Power Party (PPP), said he had heard that the presidential office was "contemplating Park's pardon."

Park was hospitalized Tuesday with shoulder pain. This was the second time that the 69-year-old has been allowed out of prison for treatment this year, amplifying calls from some that she should be pardoned on humanitarian grounds.

Park, who was a conservative president, was impeached and imprisoned in 2017 after being found guilty of abuse-of-power and bribery, allowing Moon and the DPK to come to power with a strong grip on state affairs, particularly in the early stages of his administration.

The conservative main opposition PPP has been keeping its distance from Park since her impeachment and imprisonment. PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok and potential presidential contenders have stated that Park's impeachment was fair, although there is still a group of her loyalists within the party.

Supporters of independent candidate Yoon Seok-youl, center, hold signs during his visit to a democracy monument in Daegu, Tuesday. Yonhap
Supporters of independent candidate Yoon Seok-youl, center, hold signs during his visit to a democracy monument in Daegu, Tuesday. Yonhap

Against this backdrop, pundits have been saying that pardoning Park could be a tactic that Moon could choose to divide the conservative opposition, as well as to overshadow the PPP primary, scheduled for late August.

A pardon of Park would be a critical blow for Yoon Seok-youl, the former prosecutor general under Moon and currently the front-running presidential contender expected to run for the conservative opposition. While serving as a prosecutor, Yoon led the team investigating Park in 2016, which played a pivotal role in her ousting, trial and imprisonment.

If Park gets pardoned, the voices of Park loyalists within the PPP are anticipated to grow, resulting in a heated debate over the responsibility for her imprisonment within the party. In this case, the PPP will likely find it uneasy to embrace Yoon.

The awkward situation was already seen Tuesday when Yoon visited Daegu, the hometown of Park and a conservative stronghold. During his visit to Seomun Market in the city, Park supporters clashed with Yoon supporters, exchanging verbal insults over his investigation into the former president.

After the skirmish, Yoon made neutral comments to reporters that he feels "empathy for those who regret Park's imprisonment," but "what I've done in the past is part of the duty of a prosecutor."

Pardoning Park also could result in damage to the ruling DPK, given the criticism expected from liberal supporters. Earlier this year, former DPK Chairman Lee Nak-yon faced heavy protests from within his own party, after commenting that he may ask Moon to grant a pardon for the former president.

"There seems to be less of an issue for the President in terms of freeing ― whether through parole or pardon ― Samsung Vice Chairman Lee, but the problem is that the situation of former president Park is entangled with that of Lee," said Eom Gyeong-yeong, the director of the Zeitgeist Institute.

"Pardoning Park could crack the opposition bloc's unity, but at the same time, it could spark criticism that the government is using some kind of trick. The DPK could also get mired in political debates that raise conflict among its own presidential contenders. In such a complex situation, the P\president should focus on maintaining his principles and in taking the high road."
Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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