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  Opinion   Columnists  06 Jan 2022  Skand Tayal | Korean lessons: Pardon politics, prosecutors, big business & graft

Skand Tayal | Korean lessons: Pardon politics, prosecutors, big business & graft

The writer, a retired diplomat, has served as India’s ambassador to South Korea
Published : Jan 6, 2022, 3:31 am IST
Updated : Jan 6, 2022, 11:32 pm IST

This year, rather surprisingly, President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea pardoned his predecessor, former President

President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. (Twitter)
 President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. (Twitter)

South Korea has a long tradition of annual presidential pardons for convicted and sentenced personalities. This year, rather surprisingly, President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea pardoned his predecessor, former President Park Geun-hye, who was serving a 22-year prison term after a rather bizarre corruption scandal.

Former President Park Geun-hye is the unmarried daughter of a former South Korean strongman, President Park Chung-hee. The pardoned Park Geun-hye belongs to the conservative right wing, which is now part of the country’s Opposition. Ms Park had been elected President in 2013 but was later impeached in 2017 and convicted on charges of bribery and corruption. The courts ruled that she had colluded with her close personal friend Choi Soon-sil to force South Korean “chaebols” (which are basically large family-run corporations) like Samsung to “voluntarily” contribute millions of dollars to foundations run by Choi.

Hard-working middle-class South Koreans were enraged by this nexus between politicians and corporates honchos, more so by the allegation that Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra was undeservedly admitted to the prestigious EWHA Women’s University in Seoul. After the scandal broke, the university cancelled Chung’s admission and the president of the university resigned. Any favouritism in university admissions is anathema to the people of the country.

In the recent past, several South Korean political and industry leaders have fallen foul of the law and had to face prison terms. South Korea’s first woman Prime Minister, Han Myong, served a two-year jail sentence from 2015 to 2017 for bribery. She was Prime Minister in 2006 under the liberal government of then President Roh Moo-hyun. This conviction was controversial due to the allegation of false testimony against the prosecutor. Han had always claimed innocence and was also exonerated by President Moon Jae-in in this year’s list of pardon beneficiaries.

Former Prime Minister Han’s boss, President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) got embroiled in a damaging corruption scandal after his retirement. Roh was a former human rights activist and was known for his upright character. Roh was blamed for the payment of $6 million by a businessman to his wife and son. Unable to live with this stigma, Roh committed suicide in May 2009.

It is noteworthy that every former South Korean President since the 1980s has faced corruption accusations or been imprisoned. President Lee Myung-bak also had the final year of his 2008-13 presidency hit by corruption scandals. In 2018, Lee was arrested on charges of bribery and tax evasion and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

South Korea’s Chaebols are known to cut corners and indulge in intricate financial skullduggery. But despite their immense wealth and political clout, they could not escape the long hands of the nation’s legal system. In January 2021, the $220 billion Samsung Group’s heir Lee Jae Young was sentenced to 30 months in prison for bribery. In August 2021, Lee was released on parole. His father Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Group in 1987-2008 and again in 2010-20, was also convicted twice in 1996 and 2008, for corruption and tax evasion charges, but was granted a presidential pardon in both instances. This reflects both the nexus between financial contributions to political parties by the South Korean Chaebols and also the vital role the Samsung Group has played in the industrial transformation of South Korea to a giant manufacturing hub.

The trial, conviction and sentencing of high-profile individuals shows the power and independence of its prosecutors and the judiciary. The judicial system is based on a European-style “inquisitorial system” under which South Korean prosecutors conduct criminal investigations. The combination of investigative and prosecutorial powers has been questioned in recent years, with public outrage over multiple scandals linked to prosecutors and their relationship with politicians and big business houses. The prosecutor-general is nominated by the President and approved by the National Assembly. He can be removed only after impeachment by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

President Moon Jae-in has been working to promote prosecution reform by giving back some control of criminal investigations to police officers. A special task force to investigate high-level corruption has also been proposed. The prosecutor’s office reportedly brazenly opposed these changes by opening an investigation against the family members of the justice minister, who eventually resigned.

The balance between the independence of prosecutors, investigating agencies and the judiciary, as well as their integrity, is a challenge for all Constitution-based democracies. A system of effective checks and balances is vital to prevent rogue behaviour or foot-dragging by any “independent” agency. In the United States, Presidents have been wary of the power once exercised by the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, the dictatorial head the FBI for 37 years until his death in 1972. At the other extreme, India’s main investigative agency is so much under the control of the government of the day that the Supreme Court was once forced to call it a “caged parrot” of the country’s political masters.

For an effective criminal justice system, the essential components are independence of action, the capacity and willingness to act against suspects irrespective of their political or financial clout, as well as the speed of judicial process. By these yardsticks, South Korea’s system has a fairly good record. In South Korea, cases do not linger for years and the initial trial followed by appeals in the higher courts normally does not take more than a year. This is in stark contrast with the decades it takes in the Indian judicial system for a case to come to its final conclusion.

Tags: south korea