Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a court hearing in Seoul in April. Photo: AFP
Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a court hearing in Seoul. Photo: AFP

Disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye had her prison sentence extended once again, and her fine increased, by judges in Seoul on Friday. The Seoul High Court extended her term from 24 to 25 years, and raised her fine from 20 billion won (US$17.9 million) up from 16 billion.

Prosecutors had appealed against her earlier 24-year sentence for corruption and abuse of power on the grounds that it was too light. According to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, the court said on Friday the stern sentence was “inevitable” given that Park had shown no signs of remorse and had continually denied all charges against her.

Instead, she has blamed her jailed crony, Choi Soon-sil – who a court found had been offered confidential information, and been empowered to make political decisions by Park, despite having no official position – and close aides among her staff.

Park was tried in absentia. She has been defended by state lawyers since last year after her legal team resigned, citing judicial prejudice. Since then, Park has boycotted all trial proceedings.

With the addition of a further year to her two existing sentences, Park, 66, is now serving a total of 33 years.

Spectacular plunge from grace

Friday’s judgment was the latest in a seemingly endless series of legal blows to Korea’s first-ever female president. After being impeached in 2017 for her role in a massive bribery and influence-peddling scandal in 2016, she was jailed, pending a trial, in March. At the conclusion to that trial, in April, she was sentenced to 24 years on 16 out of 18 charges, including taking bribes from major conglomerates including Samsung and Lotte. In July, a separate court sentenced her to a further eight years for receiving funds from the National Intelligence Service and for interfering in a 2016 parliamentary election.

Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of ‘The Koreans,’ said the latest punishment “has taken on the elements of a farce. These sentences are just one step short of being executed. The nature of her crimes seems insubstantial – [for these sentences] you would expect bodies to have been found in the presidential mansion, hits ordered on opponents, and billions in Swiss bank accounts. And the other partners in the crime, the conglomerate side, have got off scot-free, almost.”

Park’s downfall has been virtually operatic. She is the daughter of President Park Chung-hee, the visionary ex-general who engineered Korea’s “economic miracle,” but who suppressed opposition and ruled with an iron fist until his assassination in 1979. His daughter was the darling of Korea’s old-guard right wingers when elected in 2013. However, she proved an unpopular president and by late 2016 was a “lame duck,” who was, moreover, hated by the left.

When, in autumn 2016, news broke of a shadowy role played in her government by dubious businesswoman Choi Soon-sil – who had no official role, little education, and who some even considered a witch gifted with supernatural powers which she wielded over Park – protests erupted in central Seoul. The demonstrations, while massive, remained peaceful. They snowballed in size and ended only after Park, abandoned by her own party, was impeached.

In Korean courts, remorse matters

While punishment for not apologizing to the public or making a show of remorse may appear strange to many, it is a feature of the Korean judicial system, a former Constitutional Court judge told Asia Times.

“In evaluating sentences, especially long sentences, if somebody regrets his or her crime, then that is regarded as a factor to consider in reducing the penalty,” said Judge Hwang Ju-myung, a former research judge at Korea’s Constitutional Court, and now the lead partner in Seoul law firm Hwang, Mok, Park. “But so far, in the courtroom, her stance was that she did not do anything wrong, and that is not acceptable to the judges who are handling her trials.”

Hwang admitted that this notion is unusual compared to many other legal systems. “Usually foreigners do not understand that, as under Western laws the defendant is entitled to defend himself or herself to the end,” he said.

Park appears to have decided, on principle, against any apology – or even defense.

“From the start, unlike the vice-chairman of Samsung, who could pay for the best and the brightest, it seems to me that she had a pretty weak legal team,” said Breen. “From the start, it was a foregone conclusion that she would be punished to the full extent, so what is the point of mounting a defense? A better defense is to go limp and act like the victim.”

The common practice of tactical admissions of guilt may explain the public remorse delivered in front of cameras by numerous senior figures in conglomerates over the years.

Indeed, Park’s two counterparties in corruption – Samsung vice chairman and de facto head Lee Jae-yong, and  Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin – were subject to far gentler legal penalties.

Lee, widely seen as a key corporate figure in the series of scandals that led to Park’s downfall, walked free from his two-and-a-half year sentence when it was suspended after he had served barely a year behind bars. Lotte’s Shin is serving a 30-month sentence.

Supporters furious, public indifferent

In Seoul, few appeared surprised – or even particularly interested – in the latest verdict.

“Maybe this is justice,” said Hye-in Lee, a 20-something Seoul student. “From the start, she was in the wrong place – because she was the daughter of Park Chung-hee – and I think she was used as a means by other politicians. It is a pitiful thing or her, but it is true that she did wrong, and I think she deserves her sentence.”

With Korea’s conservatives splintered and in disarray since Park’s impeachment and following their wipeout in local elections in June, major protests are unlikely. However, a small old guard of Park supporters stand by her, vocally.

“This is 100% not a judicial decision, this is a totally political decision, the legal system is broken here,” said Cho Young-hwan, a Park supporter who is prominent in right-wing protests during which both Korean and US flags are hefted. “This was decided by a left-wing, pro-North Korean force. This is a totalitarian manipulation!”

Park’s fate is now unclear, but is more likely to lie in political hands than judicial. There are precedents for jailed ex-presidents being freed by their successors.

Political justice?

“As a very political case, it is beyond the control or shape of normal criminal cases, therefore I am not in a position to say it is cruel or not,” the former judge Hwang said. “Someday, I think her case should be pardoned.”

Current President Moon Jae-in, who came to power following the election that took place in the wake of Park’s impeachment, looks unlikely to pardon her. Much will depend on who Moon’s successor is. But the electoral trend since the late 1990s is for a two-term presidency by the left to be followed by a two-term presidency of the right, and so on. This suggests that when Moon leaves office in 2022, he may be succeeded by a fellow left-winger.

“Only if there is regime change can she be saved from prison,” the right-winger Cho said. “This is a political judgment. It is stupid. It is a joke – a phenomenon that might appear in North Korea.”

Park is not alone in a jail. Her predecessor as president, Lee Myung-bak, 77, a former Hyundai CEO who occupied the presidential Blue House from  2008-13, has been detained, awaiting trial, since March on corruption charges.

Yet while few liberals have any sympathy for Park or Lee, their cases may hold eventual ramifications for the current president, who, during a recent trip to India, met Samsung’s Lee and requested he make investments and create jobs in Korea – a move some might interpret as pressuring business.

“This has upped the ante and I am sure President Moon will fall foul of this kind of bloodlust,” said Breen. “There are fringe protests now, but it just takes one scandal for these protests to become mainstream.”