This photo taken on August 25, 2017, shows ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arriving at a court in Seoul. She was subsequently convicted on corruption charges and jailed. Photo: AFP / Kim Hong-Ji

One of the more fascinating things about Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House is that those four years of outrage, tumult, and perpetual prevarication made us forget just how awful the previous Republican administration had been.

While the media was busy amplifying and kvetching over Trump’s non-stop effrontery, the memory of the damage that George W Bush wrought upon the world largely faded, until ol’ “W” himself actually became rehabilitated.

No longer was Bush the commander-in-chief who launched an illegal invasion of a sovereign state based on lies, but instead a gentle painter who spent his time in artistic meditation on his Texas ranch.

Rather than the incurious man whose corruption-stained administration presided over the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, Bush was now seen as a serene, elder statesman who held hands with Michelle Obama while she slipped him candy, a gesture that that told the world, “It’s OK, we all forgive you.”

But do we?

George W Bush, along with his whole cadre, lives life as a wealthy, free man, despite the fact that his actions not only resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but also destabilized an entire region for perhaps generations to come.

Moreover, corporations such as Halliburton (of which Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney once served as CEO), walked away from the smoldering ruins with billions in their pockets, which leads us to wonder if profit wasn’t the primary motivation for invading in the first place.

What’s clear is that aside from the obvious and massive moral transgressions, actual legal crimes took place, yet to this day, not a single individual has been made to answer for them. Bush and his whole bloody-palmed cohort not only enjoy unfettered freedom, but continue to prosper. 

If launching a full-scale war on trumped-up justifications (from which your buddies profit mightily) isn’t enough to face some kind of justice, then what is?

Flash forward to now, when we’re still trying to untangle the rats’ nest of lies, graft, ineptitude, intimidation, and outright sedition that came to define Donald Trump’s one-term reign of error. Trump expressed nothing but contempt for both political and legal mores during his time in power, operating on a level so brazen that it screamed, “I dare anyone to do anything about it.”

Of course House Democrats did their best to answer his challenge. They impeached him twice, once for soliciting foreign interference in order to win an election, and then for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Both attempts failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for conviction in the Senate, but an impeachment trial is not the same thing as a criminal, or even civil proceeding.

So should that be the end of it? Now that Trump is a private citizen, shouldn’t he be made to answer for his naked corruption and blatant attack on democracy itself?

I, for one, am not holding my breath, because if American history shows us anything, it’s that regardless of the severity of their misdeeds, our national leaders are rarely punished. They operate with impunity, so why should this time be any different?

Across the sea, a different picture

Korea, as a culture, is more than 5,000 years old, but the Republic of Korea is a relatively young nation, and during its 76-year existence it has taken a different approach from what we see in the US. Here in South Korea, leaders are often held responsible for their wrongdoings.

In 1995, former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were both imprisoned and sentenced to death for their roles in the 1979 coup and bloody suppression of the Gwangju uprising, along with charges of corruption. Their sentences were eventually commuted by president Kim Young-sam, but both were held liable for their massive fines and are still largely reviled throughout the country.

Today, we see not just one, but two former South Korean presidents behind bars: Lee Myung-bak is currently serving a 15-year sentence for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power, while his successor, Park Geun-hye – the daughter of late Korean strongman Park Chung-hee – is doing 20 for corruption and leaking of state secrets.

It’s important to point out that most of these convictions didn’t happen automatically: They only occurred in response to popular demand and street protests. By 1995, South Korea had finally achieved full-fledged democracy, and the people called out for justice over the blood spilled on the streets of Gwangju in 1980.

And in the case of Park Geun-hye, it took more than a year of ceaseless, yet peaceful, demonstrations, rallies and vigils on the streets of Seoul before she was finally impeached, convicted, and imprisoned. The people didn’t give up. They relentlessly demanded justice until the politicians who represented them could no longer ignore their cries.

As an American living in South Korea, it is strange to see two previous presidents languishing in prison, if only for the fact that the idea is completely alien to me. I’ve never witnessed anything close to this in my home country, though there have been several instances in my lifetime when I should have.

George W Bush and Donald Trump are just the two most egregious examples: Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages and funded death squads in Central America; Bill Clinton was a serial sexual harasser and unilaterally intervened in Haiti and Somalia, resulting in untold civilian deaths; and Barack Obama, for all his “hope and change,” vastly expanded drone warfare, going so far as to assassinate American civilians in the Middle East without even a nod to due process.

Surely at least some of these are crimes.

American democracy may be older than South Korea’s, but we Americans could learn a thing or two from our ally across the Pacific, because unless we begin, like them, to hold our leaders responsible for their crimes, we might not be able to call ourselves a democracy at all. 

Chris Tharp

Chris Tharp is the author of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos and Dispatches from the Peninsula. His award-winning writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. He lives in Busan, South Korea, with his wife and a houseful of animals.