For the first time in about two years, former President Park Geun-hye has taken a political gambit from inside a suburban Seoul prison. She did not directly challenge the holders of power or the law enforcement authorities who imposed a jail term of 33 years on the 67-year-old on charges of power abuse and corruption. Speaking through her lawyer, she assailed the top contender in the current leadership race at the Liberty Korea Party, her political home.
Attorney Lee Young-ha picked at rather trivial matters in a TV interview last week to criticize Hwang Kyo-an, prime minister under Park in 2016-17, for failing to give the disgraced president humane treatment following her removal from office. He said Hwang “did not even know Park’s prisoner ID number,” and ignored her request for the provision of a table and a chair that she needed in her 6-square-meter cell for aching back.
Park’s spokesperson did not try to conceal her intent to weaken the support basis for Hwang in the Liberty Korea Party when he emphasized that the former president has turned down repeated requests from Hwang for a meeting with her at the prison. Desperate to keep pro-Park members under his wing, Hwang insisted he had done all he could to minimize Park’s difficulties during the early 2017 turmoil.
From this episode, we note with some surprise the confidence with which Park tested her influence on active members of the party, and we now wonder what secret is there for the former president to try to deprive the apparent front-runner of final victory in the party’s chairmanship election at the end of February.
By proving her still substantial leverage over the main opposition party, does she want to invite the ruling force to consider a political solution of the current situation? Her legal battle has proven futile, so is she turning to politics?
Talk of granting Park amnesty has increasingly been heard in political arenas these days. And, several thousand people again marched through Gwanghwamun last weekend demanding freedom for the former president. No doubt, calls for her amnesty will reverberate in the Kintex hall in Goyang on Feb. 27-28 from different factions with varying degrees of sympathy for her.
As soon as the interim leadership set the schedule for the party convention, Washington and Pyongyang announced the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on the same date in Vietnam. Fearing the world’s most watched get-together would steal public attention from the opposition party polls, candidates sought a postponement, which was rejected.
Another internal disruption happened when three Liberty Korea Party lawmakers held a public debate in a National Assembly hall in which the three co-sponsors and an ultraconservative activist questioned the legitimacy of the bloody 1980 uprising as a pro-democracy movement. Their claim that North Korean agents were involved in resistance against the military dictatorship invited bitter criticism to the rightist party.
These internal and external hazards notwithstanding, the biannual convention of the main opposition party currently in control of 113 National Assembly seats out of the total 300 should be held as smoothly as possible to meet the expectations of the tens of millions of the nation’s conservatives. They will turn to the Liberty Korea Party in search of an alternative force as early as the next general elections in 2020, followed by a presidential vote two years later.
While the main opposition has remained in tatters over the past two years, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea leadership has boasted plans of staying in power for “at least 20 years.” They are free to enjoy their sweet dreams about the future, beaming optimism from the peace initiatives taken with the North, which has abstained from launching long-range rockets for more than 13 months and dismantled its nuclear test facilities nine months ago.
Yet, they are advised to realize the apparently rising mood of sympathy for Park Geun-hye these days from the nearly unanimous condemnation in the fall of 2016 as the reflection of the people’s disenchantment with leftist power holders who have produced ample failures in their economic and social policies.
Media report on a daily basis worsening statistics on employment, production, exports and particularly the visible effects of naive and short-sighted labor policies, such as a stiff rise in the minimum wage and shortened 52-hour workweek. Reviewers of the Moon presidency agree that happy are only the members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and social watchdog group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, while gloom is thickening in other fields and sectors.
Speculations have it that the head of the Seoul Central Prosecutors Office who is directing the ongoing multipronged investigations into past wrongdoings will be promoted to prosecutor-general in the forthcoming regular reshuffle of senior prosecutors. Like the prosecution hierarchy, the nation’s courts have been divided into the left and right, the absolute majority joining the former.
The centennial of the 1919 March 1 Independence Movement approaches soon. The auspicious day offers an adequate background for pardoning individuals who have been condemned for official improprieties in the past, the “jeokpye.” Former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, former chiefs of the National Intelligence Service Lee Byung-ho, Lee Byung-ki and Nam Jae-jun and former Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae may fall into this category, but clemency must wait until the sentences have been finalized.
So, calls for a pardon will rise in the days ahead and Park Geun-hye could be further encouraged to attempt playing politics, initially in the process of forming a new leadership at the party she led on and off from the late 1990s. However, it is too early and is undesirable for no other reason than it could destabilize the main opposition party as it reels from two years of oblivion under public disdain.
Law enforcement has contrived an inconceivably long prison term and huge fines for the former president for her misdeeds through her salacious association with old friend Choi Sun-sil, but the Korean flag-wielding demonstrators and spectators of their weekend marches believe she has paid enough for her mistakes by spending 19 months in prison.
Whoever considers giving her freedom in the near future may do so as a step for promoting national tolerance and harmony. For her part, Park should not help convince ruling party strategists that she will remain a symbol of conservative disunity.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.