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[Editorial] Keep pardons to a minimum

Democracy saboteurs, violent protesters must be excluded from amnesty

The Moon Jae-in administration is reportedly preparing to grant its second round of special pardons on the occasion of the centennial of the March 1 Movement.

A Cheong Wa Dae official said on Tuesday that working-level preparations for the special pardons were underway at the Ministry of Justice.

Four people have been mentioned in the news media as possible candidates for presidential clemency: Lee Seok-ki, a former lawmaker with the now-disbanded Unified Progressive Party, who is serving time for inciting rebellion; Han Sang-gyun, former leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, who was released on parole in May after being arrested for organizing violent rallies to protest an array of government policies; former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook; and former Gangwon Gov. Lee Kwang-jae. Former Prime Minister Han and former Gov. Lee served out their sentences for violating political funding and election laws, but their eligibility to run for public office has not been reinstated. They are said to be ideologically close to Moon.

Some leftist groups have recently held rallies and blatantly demanded pardons for former Rep. Lee and former KCTU leader Han, calling them “prisoners of conscience” and victims of evil acts committed by past conservative governments.

Cheong Wa Dae has not ruled out the possibility of pardoning the two, saying it cannot yet confirm its position.

If they are included on the list of those to be pardoned, ideological conflicts are inevitable.

The Justice Ministry reportedly ordered district prosecutors’ offices last month to identify convicts involved in six rallies whose cases could be reviewed for possible pardons.

The six rallies were held to protest the Korea-Japan agreement on Korean women taken as sex slaves for Japanese forces during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula; the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system; the installation of a transmission tower in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province; the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island; the importation of US beef, feared to spread mad cow disease; and the government’s mishandling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

With the exception of the THAAD rally, these protests concerned decisions made under former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.

The Moon administration apparently selected those six rallies because the protesters who were punished might be supporters of the current regime.

The fairness and impartiality of its proposed special pardons, therefore, can be called into question.

If special pardons are granted to former Rep. Lee and former KCTU leader Han, what will happen to respect for law and order? Acts that destroy public order and cause great losses to the nation must not be tolerated.

Former presidents also granted special pardons on special occasions -- on March 1 to commemorate the 1919 Korean independence movement, on Aug. 15 to commemorate the liberation of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 and on Christmas -- but special pardons are often the focus of public criticism.

In December, when the Moon administration granted its first special pardons, it forgave 25 people convicted of resisting eviction from a planned redevelopment area in Yongsan, Seoul, using violence and deadly force; as well as former Democratic Party lawmaker Chung Bong-ju, who had been jailed for violating the election law. Chung was the only politician pardoned that day. For the most part, clemency was bestowed on people convicted of minor offenses of a nonpolitical nature.

This time, however, speculation is mounting that people might be absolved of instigating violent, illegal protests. Special pardons for such acts are not desirable in a democracy that respects judicial decisions. Even if only a few convicts are pardoned, the justifications must be reasonable and acceptable to most members of the public. Otherwise, special pardons could cripple the independence of the judicial branch and undermine the democratic principle of the separation of powers. Pardons must be kept to a minimum.

Certainly the administration must not forgive those convicted of threatening public security and seeking to sabotage a free democracy. Any such move would dishonor those patriotic martyrs who dedicated their lives to the independence and development of the nation.