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[Editorial] Unconvincing rulings

Kwak acquitted of bribery; Yoon only fined
for embezzling donations to 'grandmothers'

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 14, 2023 - 05:30

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Two rulings last week are stirring up controversy over their unconvincing decisions.

The court on Wednesday acquitted former People Power Party lawmaker Kwak Sang-do of bribery in connection with 5 billion won ($4 million) in severance pay his son received from Hwacheon Daeyu. The asset management firm reaped an astronomical profit by joining in a now scandal-hit Seongnam City project to build apartment complexes in Daejang-dong. Its largest shareholder, Kim Man-bae, stands trial in connection with the scandal.

The abnormally large severance pay was given to a low-ranking 31-year-old worker in 2021 who worked for six years, but the court, noting he earned it while living a financially independent married life, ruled the prosecution failed to prove it was effectively a bribe to his father.

The prosecution’s disappointing investigation aside, the court’s reasoning is concerning. Under its logic, even if an interested party hires the financially independent child of a person in power and offers a bribe disguised as wage, it would be difficult to find grounds to punish such bribery.

It is hard to imagine that Kim was not conscious of Kwak when he gave Kwak's son the extraordinarily large severance payout. Kwak was in a position to be able to help Kim's business as a lawmaker. If the retiree had not been Kwak’s son or if there had been nothing Kim wanted from Kwak, it is questionable if he gave 5 billion won in severance pay.

The court’s monetary penalty on an independent lawmaker Yoon Mi-hyang on Friday is also unconvincing.

Yoon was indicted on eight charges, including personally spending donations to the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan while she led the non-governmental organization advocating the rights of the surviving comfort women from 2011 to 2020. Sex slaves to Japan's military during World War II were euphemistically called comfort women.

The prosecution charged her with embezzling about 100 million won of the fund donated to the council but the court recognized only 17 million won as the amount Yoon embezzled and fined her 15 million won.

The court acquitted her of the other charges, including receiving contributions to the council through her personal account.

The prosecution’s investigation began in May 2020 after "Grandmother" Lee Yong-soo revealed that Yoon had exploited her and other former comfort women for her personal interests for decades. Former comfort women are commonly called "grandmothers." It indicted Yoon without detention in September that year, but the first ruling came two years and five months later. The court held its first formal hearing 11 months after Yoon's indictment. The delayed trial proceeding aroused suspicions that the court was doing so to protract her membership of the National Assembly. She was elected as a proportional lawmaker of the then ruling Democratic Party of Korea but turned independent after the party expelled her.

It is problematic that the decision came so late. To make matters worse, the court was too lenient toward Yoon, considering the array of morally deplorable acts she committed and the antagonism it aroused toward the entire civic movement for former comfort women.

Jolted by Lee’s revelations and many subsequent allegations, almost all media and much of the public condemned Yoon for preying on the grandmothers, who suffered indescribable hardship as victims of Japanese abuses. However, the court gave her a slap on the wrist. The penalty is far from the five years in prison that the prosecution demanded.

If the first-trial ruling is upheld, Yoon could continue her National Assembly membership. A jail sentence, including a suspended one, would lead to the loss of parliamentary membership.

The 17 million won recognized as illegal money she spent is not a small amount. It is hard to understand why she was not given a jail sentence.

Above all, the money Yoon embezzled for her personal use came from good citizens' donations to the grandmothers. The court should have held her accountable more strictly.

The judicial branch is the last bastion of justice. The court says it makes judgments based on evidence and jurisprudence. But if its judgment often deviates a long way from ordinary common sense, the already shaky public trust in the judiciary may collapse entirely.