President Park Geun-hye was ousted from office by a combination of factors, including her allegedly disinterested response to a maritime disaster . Photo: AFP / Kim Hong-Ji

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an ambitious Scottish general murders the king to clear the way for his own coronation – only to find his stolen kingdom dissolving underneath him in a spiral of paranoia and revenge.

Moon Jae-in did not become president of South Korea by murdering anyone. But his path to power was cleared by the removal of the person who was already sitting in the presidential Blue House.

In 2017, then-president Park Geun-hye was impeached, and later convicted on charges related to influence-peddling by an aide and corruption, and sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison. As a result, like “King” Macbeth, left-leaning Moon made the realm his own – by overturning the rule of law.

It is time to undo the injustice done to conservative Park – an injustice done not by sword, but by kangaroo court.

The reasons this issue is important extend far beyond the borders of South Korea. It imperils relations among Japan, South Korea and the US – three countries that are bound by no alliance, but by shared political values. Bad blood among these three nations leaves regional democracies vulnerable to Chinese encroachment and North Korean subterfuge.

‘Implicit’ crime

In late 2016, in a journalistic feeding frenzy of rumors and innuendo, Park’s close friend Choi Soon-sil was accused of Svengali-like behavior. Millions of South Koreans, deeply disturbed by the chicanery of those in high office, hit the streets. Impeachment followed, and the hysteria carried over to Park’s subsequent trial.

But do rumors and headlines translate into hard facts? Despite glaring inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case and cavalier refusals to follow due process, Park was impeached, convicted, and hit with a compound sentence of 33 years behind bars. In a country where a murderer may face 12 years, that is an astonishing punishment.

The evidence used against Park was based on media reportage, not objective proof. Her trial was held four days a week, making it nearly impossible for her defense team to prepare. Meanwhile, the media and prosecution kept up an onslaught of innuendo.

When it came to allegations of corruption, Park was convicted of “implicit solicitation.” Since there was no evidence of wrongdoing and the court was unable to prove that Park had committed any crime, the judiciary introduced the concept of implicit solicitation – which by definition means that there is no evidence.

Park has not been found to have received a single penny from the alleged corruption – a crime the prosecutor’s office has been frantically looking for ever since the 2016 scandal erupted, without success.

The state of the state

Other Korean presidents have been convicted in courts of law, but there are two key differences with Park’s case. First, they were given fair trials and were actually guilty of the crimes of which they stood accused. Second, their sentences, though harsh, were soon commuted.

For example, the former generals Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who oversaw the killings of pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju and a rebellion in that city in 1980, were sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively. However, both were released in two years. This is in stark contrast to Park, who has already been in prison for more than three years.

Consider, further, how such travesties affect the country of South Korea as a whole. Any country where one can be convicted based on “implicit” evidence is on the cusp of becoming a police state.

A judicial process politicized in pursuit of power makes a mockery of the principles upon which a democratic republic is supposed to stand. It is destructive of faith in government to watch Moon, a former lawyer, profess respect for human rights while building his political empire on the unjust incarceration of his predecessor.

Driving wedges

This situation is not just about South Korea. The Republic of Korea is the linchpin of an alliance that for some 70 years has been the tip of the spear against communist aggression in East Asia.

Americans, South Koreans and soldiers from across the free world fought in the 1950-53 Korean War, against clear communist aggression.  

Japan is on the frontline, too. The stronger the three countries are as a team, the brighter the flame of hope burns in East Asia and beyond. But under Moon, this trilateral relationship has been intentionally degraded.

Above all, Moon has exploited the highly emotive “comfort women” issue – even foisting former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo on President Donald Trump during the latter’s state visit to South Korea. Trump, without realizing Moon’s intention, gave Lee a warm hug.

But it has recently been revealed that Lee and many other ex-comfort women have long been exploited by a leftist non-governmental organization, the “Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.” That group had crushed a previous Japanese initiative designed to end the issue, the Asia Womens Fund of the early 1990s.

Through this April’s election, the head of that NGO joined Moon’s party as a lawmaker – clearly declaring her political colors.

More broadly – and while the recruitment and management of comfort women was no doubt a very sordid affair – lies have been told about them. 

Many were manufactured by declared communists such as Japan’s Yoshida Seiji, a novelist whose published fantasy of abducting Korean women was used as “proof” of the Japanese military’s abductions of Koreans, and Park Kyong-sik, a Korean resident of Japan who popularized the “forced abduction” fiction.

These lies were disseminated by other left-wing forces – for instance, by activist Russell Lowe, a former aide to US Senator Dianne Feinstein who, it has been credibly alleged by US intelligence officials, worked for Chinese intelligence. (Lowe left Feinstein’s office to work for a comfort-women organization.)

This has had a devastating effect on trilateral diplomacy. Understandably, public mistrust abounds.

Why Park had to go

It was to end this diplomatic devastation that Park boldly negotiated a masterstroke – the comfort-women agreement signed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, with the cooperation of Washington, in December 2015.

Under that, Abe delivered an official apology and the following year paid compensation – the two long-term demands of the comfort women’s champions. The majority of living comfort women accepted the deal, which had the potential to put Seoul-Tokyo relations, long poisoned by this issue, on to an even keel.

The Abe-Park deal was something Park’s enemies could not abide. As a long-term result, she was framed, removed from office and jailed to suffer the treatment of a political prisoner and a show trial.

She is still languishing in prison. There, she has undergone major surgery for a combination of a rotator cuff tear, a frozen shoulder, a partial rupture of her biceps muscle and arthritis. She also has a lumbar disc condition. Now nearing 70, her health continues to fail and she undergoes medical rehabilitation several times a week. 

Yet Moon – despite the long history of presidential pardons in South Korea – continues to reject her lawyer’s application for release.

A violation of human rights is occurring at the highest level in South Korea. That is important. Democratic South Korea is the first line of defense against totalitarianism in East Asia. It must not become a place where show trials stick.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Japan. His latest monograph, on the law-and-society movement in imperial Japan, is available from Cambria. He is also editing a volume of essays on East Asia during the Cold War. Morgan writes regularly for JAPAN Forward, Seiron, The Sankei Shimbun, The Remnant, and New Oxford Review.

Hanjin Lew is an opinion leader in South Korea and a political commentator on alliance politics. His area of focus is on addressing human rights as a global security issue.