SEOUL -- The Supreme Court of South Korea has upheld a 17-year prison sentence for Lee Myung-bak, the country's fourth president to be convicted of crimes after leaving office.
The court ruled Thursday that Lee had received 8.9 billion won ($7.85 million at current rates) in bribes from Samsung Electronics, in the form of legal fees for a settlement involving an auto parts maker essentially owned by the former president. In exchange, he pardoned Lee Kun-hee, the Samsung Electronics chairman who had been convicted of tax evasion, the court said.
"The rule of law has collapsed," Lee said after the sentencing. "I am concerned about the country's future."
The string of disgraced ex-presidents is attributed partly to the extensive authority granted to those in the post, which opens opportunities for corruption. But South Korea's powerful prosecutors also are alleged to play a role by aiding the country's administrations with political retribution.
Critics say part of the problem is that South Korea's presidents, who are also the commander-in-chief of the military and can appoint key government officials, wield too much power. The country's progressive and conservative factions have a bitter rivalry, and administrations tend to look aggressively into possible improprieties by predecessors from the opposing side. South Korean prosecutors, who control the country's criminal investigations, often side with the sitting president.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun, a progressive, committed suicide after becoming embroiled in a corruption probe during the presidency of Lee, a conservative. Lee himself was arrested in March 2018 as current President Moon Jae-in, who considers Roh his political mentor, solidified his grip on the government. Moon's immediate predecessor, the conservative Park Geun-hye, has been sentenced to prison as well.
Reforming South Korea's prosecution system is one of Moon's policy priorities. The country soon will create an office tasked with investigating high-ranking government officials, including former presidents, a move designed to curb the power held by prosecutors.
But many question whether the new office can keep its investigations free of politics. For one, its head will be appointed by the president via a parliamentary nominating committee.