Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak (L) arrives at a court to in Seoul on September 6, 2018. He faces 15 years in jail but is appealing his sentence. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak arrives at a court to in Seoul on September 6, 2018. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Another one bites the dust. In a Seoul court on Friday afternoon, one more South Korean ex-president was sentenced to a hefty jail term and fine.

In Seoul Central District Court on Friday, Lee Myung-bak, 76, a conservative who occupied the presidential Blue House from 2008 to 2013, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay a 13 billion won (USD11.5 million) fine after being found guilty by Judge Jeong Gye-seon on a range of charges.

Prosecutors had demanded 20 years. Lee now has seven days to appeal, and is expected to do so.

Unusually, the sentencing was televised live on state TV. However Lee, who is believed to be in poor health, did not appear in court, so was sentenced in absentia. He has been detained behind bars since his trial started in April, alongside his successor as president, Park Geun-hye.

Park was impeached in 2017 after massive protests in central Seoul, then detained and tried on charges of corruption and influence peddling. Park boycotted her own trial and made no appeal. She is serving a 33-year term.

Prior to his sentencing, Lee had, on Sept. 6, read out a 16-minute statement in which he apologized and expressed remorse, but also called the charges against him “ridiculous allegations” and “utterly incomprehensible.” His legal team called the allegations against Lee “political retribution” and compared them to actions taken during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Prosecutors took a different view, however, describing Lee’s case as an “example of abuse of power showing all of his overall corrupt practices as president,” adding that his actions represented “corruption, government-business collusion and moral hazard.”

A web of charges

Lee faced 16 charges, including embezzlement and tax evasion in connection with DAS, an auto-parts company which Lee had long been suspected of owning through a borrowed name.

The court found that Lee, not his elder brother – who had previously been jailed in related cases – was indeed the owner of the company. The court also found that Lee ordered DAS officials to create slush funds and undertake other irregularities. 

Of the 35 billion won prosecutors alleged Lee was found to have embezzled, the court acknowledged Lee had in fact taken 24 billion won.

Lee was also found guilty of taking bribes, in the form of legal payments worth US$5.8 million in a US court case involving DAS, from Samsung. At the time, Samsung Chairman Lee Keun-hee, no relation, had been found guilty of tax evasion; he was later pardoned by then-President Lee.

The Samsung chairman himself is unlikely to appear in any court: He has been in a coma since 2015. Lee’s son and de facto successor, Samsung Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-young, was found guilty of bribery in the Park case, but was released with a suspended sentence after spending just a year behind bars.

However, the court cleared Lee of taking bribes from the National Intelligence Service during his time in the Blue House – a crime Park had been previously found guilty of.

From poverty to president

Lee grew up in poverty – he was so thin he was unable to undertake military service – and in his youth worked as a market porter. But, amid the economic rise of Korea, he went on to a glittering career in business and politics.

Prior to the presidency, Lee had served as Seoul’s mayor. His landmark achievement was tearing down a massive highway overpass in the city center and rejuvenating the Cheonggyecheon stream that had formerly flowed beneath it.

Upon completion, it was lauded as one of Asia’s most successful urban regeneration projects, and today is a blue ribbon wending between downtown Seoul’s high rises, lowering summer temperatures and offering the city a convenient leisure space.

Ironically, Lee had overseen the building of the highway during an earlier career as CEO of Hyundai Construction, one of the companies behind Korea’s “economic miracle” of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

In business, Lee’s can-do attitude earned him the nickname of “The Bulldozer,” and in the Blue House, he was nicknamed “The CEO President.” In conversation, though, he was often referred to simply by his initials: “MB.”

When Lee assumed power in 2008, he reversed a decade of liberal rule under two prior administrations and overturned the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea. In 2010, under Lee’s administration, a South Korean corvette was sunk in what Seoul and its allies insist was a North Korean torpedo attack.

That same year, an island was shelled by North Korean artillery. 

Lee’s flagship domestic policy as president – a follow-up to his Cheonggyecheon project as Seoul mayor – took massive flak. His original plan to dig a canal from Seoul, in the country’s northwest, to Busan, in the southeast, was downgraded to a project to link and develop four major rivers. The end result was lambasted as an environmental disaster.

Still, under Lee, Korea successfully rode out the 2008 global financial storm. He was also – despite the four-rivers project – a promoter of environmental policies and causes.

Dangerous presidency

Korea watchers are divided over whether the country’s socio-political culture generates corrupt and collusive practices; whether it is, by nature, a harshly unforgiving political environment; or whether, in a changing society, the dubious practices of the past are being justly struck down by judicial authorities.

What it clear is that the nation is riven by an ideological left-right divide that dates back to the lethal politics of the Korean War years.

Amid this climate, Park and Lee are hardly the only post-term South Korean presidents to come a-cropper, for the Blue House appears cursed. Every single leader of South Korea, a nation that came into being in 1948, has suffered fates that range from the dire to the deadly.

South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman, was exiled to Hawaii after students were shot dead in protests. The next, former general Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his intelligence chief. Park’s successor, Chun Do-hwan, who also seized power in a coup, was sentenced to death.

Chun’s successor and crony, Roh Tae-woo, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Both charges were related to the killing of demonstrating students in the city of Gwangju in 1980. Both men were subsequently pardoned and now live quietly in central Seoul.

The next two presidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both liberals, escaped judicial sanctions, but both saw family members jailed for corruption. Kim Dae-jung’s successor Roh Moo-hyun – the mentor to current liberal president Moon Jae-in – committed suicide amid a probe into his family members’ alleged corruption. 

Lee has been hated by many liberals since Roh’s suicide, given that the corruption probe had taken place under Lee’s presidency.