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Politics

Pardons for South Korea ex-leaders gain traction

Ruling Democratic Party weighs olive branch ahead of elections

Supporters of ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye gather in Seoul after she receives a 24-year prison sentence in 2018 for a bribery conviction.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's progressive ruling party is considering pardons for former conservative presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak as it bleeds public support over the economy and coronavirus ahead of key elections.

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling upholding Park's 20-year prison sentence will stoke the debate begun by Lee Nak-yon, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea. In a New Year's Day interview with Yonhap News Agency, the party leader said he would recommend that President Moon Jae-in issue special pardons for the country's two preceding presidents.

The Democratic Party "should play an active role in pushing for the matter in order to promote national unity," Lee said.

Park and Lee Myung-bak both were found guilty of misconduct undertaken during their time in office.

The South Korean president has the authority to issue special pardons without the approval of the National Assembly, ostensibly as a way to correct unjust rulings and keep up with changing societal norms. In practice, these pardons are granted mostly to politicians and business leaders and have been a source of controversy.

Park and Lee Myung-bak are political foes of the Democratic Party. Lee in particular was behind the corruption investigation into former President Roh Moo-hyun, a longtime friend and mentor to Moon, that is widely believed to have prompted Roh's suicide.

Speculation suggests that Lee Nak-yon is extending an olive branch with his eyes on the mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan in April, as well as the next presidential race in 2022.

Voters are losing faith in the Moon administration amid surging property prices and a sluggish economy. His coronavirus response, previously a key driver of support, has come under fire as new cases rise. Moon's approval rating sank to a low of 38% in a Gallup Korea poll this month, even though about 40% of South Korean voters are said to be staunch supporters of the administration.

Moon's Democrats face an uphill battle in the Seoul and Busan by-elections, which both result from party incumbents stepping down over sexual harassment allegations. These races are widely seen as a bellwether for next year's presidential election to choose Moon's successor.

Various polls show Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the centrist opposition People's Party, leading the Seoul mayoral race. Ahn ran unsuccessfully against Moon in the 2017 presidential election as a member of this third party.

The Democratic Party hopes that a potential pardon for Park and Lee would attract support from South Korea's centrists and conservatives, who largely oppose their imprisonment.

But many Democrats are strongly against the idea. The party held an emergency meeting Jan. 3 to discuss the issue, and decided that it needs to see a national consensus and repentance from the former leaders in order to support a pardon.

Critics also argue that the very concept of special pardons undermines respect for the law. Every South Korean president since Roh has promised to restrict their use while campaigning, only to tap the option at some point while in office.

Lee Myung-bak in 2009 pardoned former Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was found guilty of tax evasion and other charges tied to Pyeongchang's bid to host the Winter Olympics. Moon in 2019 pardoned an aide of Roh who was found guilty of bribery.

Further speculation suggests that Moon will wait until after the 2022 presidential election to decide on the pardon in order to minimize the political cost to him and his successor. Moon's office issued a statement Thursday saying only that the cycle of imprisoning former presidents must end. Some say he could reveal his stance at an upcoming news conference.

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