The sentence handed down last Friday to ex-president Park Geun-hye – 24 years in prison and a US$17.5 million fine – may have astonished the world with its harshness, but was no surprise to South Koreans.
In a country where murderers face sentences of about 12 years, had Park’s trial ended in anything less, it would have been remarkable, given the fates of her predecessors.
South Korea can proudly boast of having won democracy after “people power” protests in 1987 ended decades of authoritarian rule. But while ex-leaders in most democracies can anticipate genteel retirements – doing good deeds, penning autobiographies and bloviating at well-remunerated speaking functions – Korean leaders’ ends range from the ignominious to the calamitous.
Presidential downfalls either come in late- or post-term. Leaders in the latter category transition from being above the law to suffering the full weight of it. A brief listing of Korea’s presidents’ fates reads like the roll call of a particularly harsh court.
A cursed institution
The first, Rhee Syngman, in power from 1948-60, was exiled to Hawaii after overseeing the shooting of student demonstrators. The next, Park Chung-hee, from 1963-79, who had seized power via a coup, was assassinated by his intelligence chief. Chun Do-hwan, from 1980-88, another coup artist who oversaw the killing of pro-democracy protesters in 1980, was sentenced to death and his sidekick and successor, Roh Tae-woo, who ruled from 1988-93, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Both were pardoned.
Liberal presidents have fared little better than the above conservatives. Former opposition firebrands Kim Young-sam – 1993-98 – and Kim Dae-jung – 1998-2003 – both saw family members jailed for corruption, while Roh Moo-hyun – 2003-08 – committed suicide while his wife was being probed for graft.
Lee Myung-bak, who ruled from 2008-12, saw his brother jailed for bribery, and as of last month, Lee has been in detention facing a battery of retroactive charges. And Park, whose run was from 2013-17 and is the daughter of the assassinated Park Chung-hee, was impeached and is now starting her lengthy sentence.
What is behind this dire record?
Dynastic cultures of corruption, accountability
The Blue House, the presidential mansion in Seoul, stands regally behind the medieval palace of Gyeongbokgung and Korea’s presidency is sometimes dubbed “imperial.” A culture of patronage lingers from a dynastic past, when those who won power customarily dispensed rewards to family, friends and associates while accepting gifts for favors – in modern terms, nepotism, cronyism and corruption.
“When you operate in a low-trust society you look to those that you can trust and typically it is family members, and people you grew up with,” said Cho Hee-kyoung of Hongik University Law School. “There is also the sense that if someone in the family does well, that person is supposed to look after the family.”
That pre-modern tradition existed, fully fledged, up to the recent past. “It was not much more than 100 years ago that Korea had a caste system,” said James Kim of Seoul’s Asan Institute. “It was educated elites versus the rest, and a high degree of ‘clientelism.’”
Another carryover is that kings of yore were held accountable for national ills. “There is extreme moral righteousness behind Korean politics, in that Koreans want to pin all their weaknesses on the president,” said Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute in Seoul. “The king or president is responsible for the realm, in the Confucian sense, and if things go wrong in the realm – kill the king!”
A striking aspect of Korea’s leadership culture is its top-down structure, which encourages adherence to the leader’s supposed will – and encourages related illegalities. “Cultural hierarchies are deeply embedded in the system,” said Byoung-joon Kim, an affiliate professor at Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “There is a lack of sovereign individuals thinking independently: They think of the top first, rather than the right thing do to.”
A powerful institution, backed by big business
Some consider the presidency over-powerful. “The problem lies in the fact that our democratic institutions are still very weak as the principle of separation of power and three branches of government [executive, legislature, judiciary] has not really worked,” said Cho, noting that the president appoints the head of state broadcasters and the judiciary. “Traditionally in Korea, the law was subordinate to the bureaucracy and political power, and in that sense, the presidency was above the law,” agreed Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. “So the presidency and people close to it were subject to enormous temptations; there were people queuing up to give them stuff.”
Moves are afoot to adjust the constitution amid local elections in June. One mooted alteration is to shift from a single five-year-term presidency to two four-year terms; another is to enable a key oversight mechanism. “There should be proper systems to keep presidents checked and balanced,” said Jin Sung-joon, secretary of political planning at the Blue House. “Most importantly, the Board of Audit and Inspection has to become an independent institution; currently it is under the presidency.”
Much of the murky money lubricating the political round originates in big business, notably the family-run conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte and SK, which dominate the economy. Korea’s development model was government-led industrialization, which generated cozy ties between political and business elites. Today, in terms of justice, business lags behind politics: While Koreans hold presidents to account, conglomerate family heads customarily escape sanction.
This striking judicial double standard may be because when presidents lose power, they also lose protection, being frequently disowned by their parties. Businessmen, however, have the money to groom power brokers, hire lawyers and influence newspaper coverage with advertising revenue.
“When Park Geun-hye is out of the Blue House, she is on her own, but the head of a chaebol has enormous resources and people paid to go into bat for them,” said Breen. “If Park was controlling the salaries of all members of her party, she would probably not be in prison right now.”
Resentment against elites and vindictiveness
Relationships between elites generate simmering anger. Koreans also say they are subject to han – a feeling of suppressed bitterness due to past ills – and many youngsters perceive the gap between haves and have-nots to be vast, while a mature economy no longer generates the fast growth and jobs their parents enjoyed.
“There is a lot of resentment and people think this is linked to power elites, so when scandals periodically come into the public limelight, it confirms people’s suspicions,” said Kim of the Asan Institute. “There is a lot of backlash: People would like things to be more equal, more fair, and until this can be resolved, people will have resentment about the system.”
Resentment underwrites a dynamic culture of mass protest seen most notably in 1987 democratization demonstrations and the 2016 “Candlelit Revolution” protests that overthrew Park. But while Korea’s intensely communal social culture amplifies the joy of the crowd, it also animates a mob mentality.
“I was amazed at the  World Cup soccer crowds … I think Koreans got into the habit of subconsciously needing that feeling,” said Hankook University’s Kim. “But when a crowd picks out a scapegoat and exercises violence against the scapegoat, the rest feel united and empowered – a witch hunt.”
“A huge proportion of Koreans are Christian, but there is not a great spirit of forgiveness, nor of Buddhist compassion,” added Breen. “The political culture is rather mean and vindictive.”
When everyone’s guilty, vengeance is enabled
In the cut-and-thrust of Korean politics, when power shifts, public anger can be leveraged by an incoming administration to justify probes into prior incumbents. “The judiciary used to be swayed by political power,” said Breen. “Now it is influenced by populism – by public sentiment.”
Backed by the “law of public opinion,” the administration of populist President Moon Jae-in claims to be driving “deep-seated evils” out of society; right-wingers snarl that the attacks on Park and Lee are “political vengeance.”
Customarily, presidents crush opponents by wielding the preferred blunt instrument of the Korean state, its powerful prosecution service – and politicians are easy meat. “The campaign finance law, the way you can generate funds, is very unrealistic, and even the Korean Election Commission has suggested making the law more realistic,” Hankook University’s Kim said. “The caps are too low and the restrictions too tough, so any prosecutor can send any politician to jail.”
Looking ahead, Park’s downfall signals reduced public patience for corruption and cronyism in the Blue House. “From the point of view of fairness and individual culpability, Park was no more corrupt than her predecessors,” said Breen. “But public intolerance for the imperial presidency has put future presidents on notice.”
All previous experience suggests Moon will be at risk once the political pendulum swings back to the right. “I wonder what the conservatives are preparing for President Moon’s retirement: A gold watch? A set of golf clubs?” mused Pastreich. “It does not take a lot of imagination to see how they perceive this.” To safeguard his future, Pastreich advises Moon to pardon the hapless Park – a development many anticipate.
Yet, given the high levels of corruption surrounding politics globally, the harsh treatment doled out to Korean leaders may offer lessons to the world. “I think Korea deserves credit as it has pursued accountability at the highest levels,” said Pastreich. “You don’t that find in other countries or democracies, especially the United States.”