Irony in former President Lee’s release on bail
The star-studded state penitentiaries in South Korea are now one former president less. Lee Myung-bak was freed on bail last week after more than 11 months in prison while appeal procedures are underway for a 15-year term and a huge amount of fines imposed on him for an assortment of charges that stemmed largely from his financial deeds more than a decade ago.
Releasing a criminal defendant on bail is extremely rare in the Korean justice system unlike in Western countries, so it is considered an act of leniency here. The former president’s conditional release therefore provides ample fodder for speculation among those who look at Lee’s case through the frame of political vendetta.
Lee, 77, now outside prison walls, but he is confined within the fence of his house in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul. He needs special court permission to go to the hospital; he can meet or contact by phone with only family members in direct lineage, i.e. wife, children and grandchildren, in addition to his defense counsel. His older brother Lee Sang-deuk was not allowed to talk to him when he telephoned him the day he returned home.
“MB” is a rich man and the bail money of 1 billion won ($885,230) is hardly unaffordable for him. Yet, the court was generous enough to accept a payment guarantee issued by an insurance firm instead of the whole amount in cash, for which his family made a deposit of 10 million won. The court later added his (government-provided) bodyguards and secretary in the category of people allowed to be in direct contact with the former president, but these were banned from “communicating with people involved in Lee’s trial.”
The ongoing prosecution investigation into collaboration between the administration and the higher echelon of the court in the past might suppress speculation about the temporary release of Lee reflecting the intent of the present ruling power. Yet, people tend not to believe that the court simply responded to the appeals from Lee’s defense citing his deteriorating health that caused worries of a “possible sudden death.”
Comments in the established media refrain from directly attributing Lee’s release to President Moon Jae-in, but they obliquely indicate that the Moon administration could no longer bear the growing damage to its international reputation over keeping two former presidents in jail. They also agree that the ruling bloc no longer considers Lee as a meaningful political threat but rather as an effective factor stirring the unity of the opposition front.
Lee’s supporters in the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, reduced to a meager handful in the legislature, could still disrupt the new leadership of Hwang Kyo-an. An immediate and important outcome of Lee’s bail, which actually amounts to a virtual house arrest, was the rising calls for the freeing of Park Geun-hye, the impeached president.
Believers in political engineering or machination therefore have looked at Lee’s release and the anticipated leniency on Park sometime in the near future as gambits to be chosen by the present leftist rulers for the goal of extending their hold on power, particularly with victory in the 2020 general elections. Law is for justice but history shows it can serve as a useful tool for the justification of political programs.
Now everyone questions if judges in Korea today, from Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo down to those on district court benches, are completely insulated from politics after a year of the prosecution probe into the “past wrongdoings.” Instead, there are signs that Korea’s legal community is more politicized than two years ago with judges ideologically divided.
The whole nation floats on wildly fluctuating political tides, with ever widening distance between the right and left. In the spring of 2019, huge crowds of protesters in their weekend rallies at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun plaza raising their voice for the freedom of the 67-year-old Park under arrest since March 31, 2016, on 13 counts of charges. Last Sunday marked two full years since her dismissal.
When I walked toward the Gwanghwamun intersection after having lunch nearby last Saturday, I was confronted by swarming demonstrators in a procession through the Taepyeongro and Sejongro streets. Scattered rallies were held in front of the Seoul Station, Deoksu Palace and Kyobo Building.
Young and old protesters marched in the direction of the Blue House, each holding a Taegeukki, many with the Stars and Stripes in their hands or wrapping their shoulders. Placards in the names of National Center for the Freedom of Park Geun-hye, Coalition for Freedom or Daehan Patriotic Party had words calling for her reinstatement as president with nullification of her impeachment.
Media reports of these weekend demonstrations, which are growing in size, did not give estimates of the number of participants. In my own observation, however, they may be counted in tens of thousands as protesters were spread across the broad streets, leaving two lanes for the passage of cars. Their rallies were noisy but peaceful.
At the moment, however, there is little possibility that Park will return home from the Seoul Prison on bail, simply because she has not asked for it, unlike her predecessor. Park has a two-year imprisonment finalized for interfering in her party’s nominations for parliamentary elections and appeals procedures are underway for 30 more years of jail term given on other charges.
Although their goal remains unrealistic, the “Taegeukki Corps” calling for Park’s freedom has bolstered its profile in the opposition and members of its component groups are challenging the leadership of the Liberty Korea Party to accept them into the party ranks. Lee’s release on bail last week added momentum to their campaign and Hwang the new party leader faces a hard choice.
Public sentiments toward the disgraced former president have turned warmer even if her mistakes are not forgiven. Initial shock and indignation gave way to pity and sympathy with the lonely lady in prison, as disenchantment deepened with the government that replaced hers. Worsening economy and continuation of political revenge by audacious power holders have accelerated the loss of support notably by the younger generation.
And then we are witnessing a great irony: At a time when the government vows to terminate collusion between power and law, few in this country believe that the Blue House had nothing to do with the temporary release of “MB” from jail last week.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.