Former South Korea president Lee Myung Bak slams graft charges, saying they are an insult

Former South Korean President Lee Myung Bak appears for his first trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on May 23, 2018.
Former South Korean President Lee Myung Bak appears for his first trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on May 23, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - Former South Korean president Lee Myung Bak on Wednesday (May 23) defiantly described the corruption charges he faces as an insult at his first court appearance since his arrest in March.

The 76-year-old former chief executive turned president - who served from 2008 to 2013 - faces multiple charges including bribery, abuse of power, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

The case against Lee means all four former South Korean presidents who are still alive have been charged or convicted for criminal offences.

TV footage showed Lee, wearing a dark blue suit with a badge with his inmate number "716" pinned to the lapel, being led into a courtroom in Seoul. He was uncuffed due to his advanced age.

"I stand here broken-hearted," Lee said in his opening statement.

He has been charged with accepting a total of some 11 billion won in bribes between late 2007 when he was elected president and 2012, according to prosecutor documents.

These allegations include claims that the Samsung Group bought a presidential pardon in 2009 for its chairman Lee Kun Hee, who had been convicted of tax evasion and given a suspended jail sentence.

"I was appalled by the allegations that I received bribes from Samsung in return for a presidential pardon," Lee Myung Bak said. "This is an insult to me."

He claimed he had given the Samsung chief, then a member of the International Olympic Committee, a special pardon so that he could lead efforts to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, which eventually took place in Pyeongchang.

Samsung allegedly paid six billion won in legal fees to a US law firm on the former president's behalf.

Both Samsung and Lee Myung Bak have denied the allegations as groundless.

According to reports, the former president is also accused of accepting 2.2 billion won from a former chief executive of a state-financed banking group for helping him assume the post.

He allegedly pocketed 1.7 billion won of secret funds from the country's spy agency, received 400 million won in bribes from a lawmaker, and embezzled millions from DAS, an auto parts firm he is said to own under the names of his relatives.

The former president on Wednesday repeated his denial that he owned DAS, saying the auto parts company belongs to his brother.

"I just hope the country's justice system may prove its fairness before the people and the international community through this trial," he concluded.

South Korean presidents have a tendency to end up in prison after their time in power - usually once their political rivals have moved into the presidential Blue House.

Last month, Lee's successor Park Geun Hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined millions of dollars for bribery and abuse of power.

Two former army generals who served as president through the 1980s to early 1990s also spent time in jail after leaving office but were later pardoned.

Another former leader, Roh Moo Hyun, committed suicide after becoming embroiled in a corruption probe.