Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives at a court in Seoul last year. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives at a court in Seoul last year. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Prosecutors have demanded a three-decade prison sentence and a fine of more than US$100 million for conservative ex-president Park Geun-hye, 66, who was impeached and ousted from office in March 2017 after a corruption and influence-peddling scandal that snowballed in 2016.

“We ask the court to hand down 30 years in prison and (a fine of) 118.5 billion won ($110 million) for the accused, who must take the ultimate responsibility for the scandal as the 18th president of this country,” prosecutors said in a statement, covered by agencies, that was read out to the Seoul District Court.

A hefty prosecution demand had been anticipated, as prosecutors were possibly emboldened by the 20-year jail sentence handed down to Park’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil, early this month.

Park herself, who has been held in detention during her entire trial, did not appear in court. She has boycotted her own legal proceedings and fired her legal team, claiming that she is the victim of a political vendetta.

The tactic appears not to have played well with prosecutors.

“When the court issued an arrest warrant for the accused Park, she tried to cover up the true picture of the case by describing the move as political revenge,” the prosecution statement read.

One legal professional considered her strategy unwise.

“In the Korea system, the remorse shown by the accused is really critical,” said Brendon Carr, a senior foreign legal consultant at Hwang, Hong and Co PC. “An accused is virtually guaranteed to be convicted, so once placed on trial, the game is to seek a lenient sentence rather than an acquittal; boycotting your own trial is very much an all or nothing play.”

Murderer’s sentence for dictator’s daughter?

Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a general who seized power in 1963 and implemented Korea’s “economic miracle” in the 1960s and 70s, eradicating poverty and constructing an industrial economy, but suppressing democratic development. He was assassinated in 1979.

His daughter was elected in 2013. The Park-Choi scandal was ignited in 2016 when news leaked out that Park had outsourced speech-writing duties to Choi, who was unelected and – a serious issue in hyper-educated South Korea – uneducated. It was then discovered that Choi had overseen two foundations, established with authority from Park, that solicited donations from businesses, including such corporate giants as Samsung and Lotte Group.

Park – already unpopular; held largely responsible for the high death toll in the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014; and a poor public communicator – appeared impotent as developments snowballed.

The scandal led to the so-called “Candlelit Revolution” – the biggest protest seen in Korea since the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1987. Park’s party, and even the conservative media, abandoned her.

In her impeachment trial, Park was charged with eight offenses and found guilty of two: corruption and unconstitutionally handing state power to Choi. With her presidential immunity lifted, she has faced over 18 criminal charges.

Even so, the demand for a 30-year sentence was “comical,” Carr said.

“30 years is a sentence for murder, but most sentences are cut down on appeal to 12-15 years,” said Carr, a senior foreign legal consultant. “The prosecutor’s demand is always a maximalist demand, they always ask for as much as the law allows, and ask on the expectation that the judge is not likely to impose as much as they demand.”

A former Korean state prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the sentence demand justified.

“Basically, she was the president and she was the main criminal in this case,” he said. “That is the bottom line.” Even so, asked for a recent legal precedent, he admitted, “Frankly speaking, I can’t remember this kind of sentence, usually is it for serious crimes such as murder.”

Angry conservatives to rally on Thursday

Sentencing is expected in late March or early April. A legal partner at a major Seoul law firm said he expected Park to get 25-30 years, based on the 20-year sentence handed down to Choi.

“What influences sentences in Korea is the judge’s sense of justice, and public opinion also plays a factor,” Carr added. “Sensational crimes usually attract heavier sentences.”

Conservative angst did not take long to manifest. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party criticized the prosecution’s request, calling it “more cruel than capital punishment”. “Could it be crueler than this?” party spokesman Chang Je-won was quoted as telling Yonhap.

Elderly conservative activists – Park’s largest support base – were outraged by the 30-year sentence demand.

“That was not based on facts or on crimes, only based on political condemnation,” said Cho Young-hwan, who organizes conservative protesters in the Gangneung area. “This is political witch-hunting – this is a coup d’etat government by mass mobilization!”

His last point was a reference to the Moon Jae-in administration, which took power in May 2017 after Park’s March ouster.

Cho said conservative rallies would be held on Thursday (March 1) in central Seoul, with 200,000 protesters expected. Conservatives, mainly in their 50s and 60s, have also been angered recently by the visit of North Korean General Kim Yong-chol at the close of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In Korea’s hothouse political climate it is customary for ex-presidents and related parties to suffer legal misfortunes, and Park is not the first ex-president to face a very harsh sentence.

President Chun Do-hwan, who took power in a coup d’etat and brutally suppressed pro-democracy protesters in the city of Gwangju in 1980, leading to 200 deaths, and his right-hand man, Roh Tae-woo, who became Korea’s first democratically elected president after Chun stepped down, were sentenced to death and life imprisonment, respectively.

Both, however, benefited from subsequent presidential pardons, and live quietly in Seoul today.

“Most Koreans are not that interested in how many years she will get on her sentence, as most do not expect her to serve many years in prison,” another Korean legal professional, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Read: Impeached South Korean president’s crony gets 20 years in jail