South Korea's former president, Lee Myung-bak, arrives at the prosecutors' office in Seoul, South Korea, on March 14, 2018.   Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji
South Korea's former president, Lee Myung-bak, arrives at the prosecutors' office in Seoul, South Korea, on March 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

Yet another South Korean ex-president stood in the dock on Wednesday, as Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who held power from 2008-2013, was summoned before prosecutors in a graft probe.

Lee, usually referred to as “MB,” for his initials, was a Hyundai executive known as “The Bulldozer” for his take-no-prisoners business leadership style, before entering politics and becoming the so-called “CEO president.” He faces multiple bribery allegations, that, combined, would amount to millions of dollars if proven.

Lee is alleged to have embezzled funds amounting to millions of US dollars from the National Intelligence Service (which controls “black funds” which are not accounted for); for receiving over US$2 million from a major banking group, Woori Financial Group; and for holding majority ownership of some 80% of shares – under false names, which is illegal – in the auto parts company Das. Das is also alleged to have built up a US$28 million slush fund for Lee. Moreover, he is accused of mismanagement of presidential records and violations of election law.

Typically, the probe also covers Lee’s relatives and former aides; his brother has already been jailed.

“I stand here with a heavy heart,” Lee said as he arrived at the prosecutors’ office in Seoul at 9:30am, according to agencies on the scene. His 5-kilometer car journey from his home in the capital’s upscale Gangnam district to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office was covered on live television.

Lee was questioned in the same room as his successor, Park Geun-hye, had been. She is currently in detention, awaiting sentencing, after being impeached in a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal. Prosecutors have prepared 120 pages of questions for the 76-year-old Lee, who was unlikely to leave the office before midnight on Wednesday, according to TV news reports. The prosecution has not yet demanded a detention warrant, but may do so later this week, according to reports.

Naturally, parties were divided.

The speaker of the Liberty Korean Party called Lee’s summons “a historical tragedy” and added his hope that “the politics of revenge will not be repeated.” Choo Mi-ae, head of the governing Minju Party, said that the more-than 20 charges faced by Lee were “enough to put him in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

‘Rooting out evils’ or ‘political vengeance?’

Lee’s court appearance comes amid multiple probes launched by the Moon Jae-in administration into policies and alleged wrongdoings by previous administrations. The administration calls it “rooting out deep-seated evils” in a political culture noted for corruption and nepotism. The conservative opposition – and Lee himself – characterize it as “political vengeance.”

In a piece of wordplay on his name and initials, Lee has been derisively called “2MB” (2 megabytes – a very modest storage space in high-tech South Korea) by opponents. He is particularly despised by liberals after his predecessor, the liberal president Roh Moo-hyun – a key mentor of current president, Moon – committed suicide in 2009, in the first year of Lee’s administration. At the time of his suicide, Roh’s family were under investigation for corruption. The cases against them were dropped following his death.

The judicial misfortunes of ex-presidents do appear to follow the movements of the political pendulum.

When Lee took power he overturned two terms of leftist leadership: the administrations of Kim Dae-jung, who assumed power in 1998, and Roh, who left the presidential Blue House in 2008. Lee was followed into presidential office by his fellow conservative Park Geun-hye in 2012; she left office in disgrace in 2017. Now, with liberals in power once again, the impeached and detained Park awaits sentencing and a possible 30-year jail term and Lee belatedly faces prosecutors.

The curse of the Korean presidency

When it comes to the treatment of its presidents and ex-presidents, South Korea has a uniquely merciless history.

Since its foundation as a state in 1948, one president has been exiled to Hawaii in disgrace, and one assassinated in office. One president was sentenced to death, one to life imprisonment, and a third (Park) faces what is likely to be a very lengthy jail term. Three presidents have seen family members jailed for corruption, and one (Roh) committed suicide a year after leaving office. Lee escaped relatively unscathed – but now even he looks set to face the music.

Against this backdrop, Korean media are agonizing over what is behind their nation’s presidential curse. “This is not a curse,” said one Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a tragedy.”