SEOUL - Disgraced former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, now serving a 22-year jail term for corruption and power abuse, is set to walk free on the last day of the year.
The Justice Ministry, in what experts deem as a surprise but calculated move, announced on Friday (Dec 23) that she was granted a presidential pardon, partly due to her deteriorating health.
Park, 69, is now warded at Samsung Medical Centre in southern Seoul due to chronic shoulder and back pain, poor mental health and even dental issues. She is expected to be released directly from there.
President Moon Jae-in voiced hopes that the pardon would bolster national unity and harmony.
“We must overcome the pain of the past and move into a new era,” he was cited as saying by his spokesman Park Kyung-mee.
“Now is the time to boldly join forces towards the future, rather than to quarrel with each other, and be caught up in the past. Considering the many challenges we face, national unity and humble inclusiveness are more urgent than anything else.”
Park is among 3,094 people who will be released on Dec 31. They include people jailed for violating election laws and anti-government protests.
Her lawyer told reporters she expressed gratitude to Mr Moon for pardoning her. She said she is grateful to the people who supported her and will show her gratitude as soon as possible.
Sworn in as South Korea’s first female president in 2013, Park became the first elected leader to be ousted from office when the Constitutional Court in March 2017 upheld Parliament’s decision to impeach her over a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal that involved her close friend Choi Soon-sil.
Park was then sentenced to a combined 22 years in jail for charges that include bribery and abuse of power.
Her loyal supporters have been rallying for months for her to be pardoned, but the Moon administration seemed to be against it.
South Korea has a history of punishing and pardoning corrupt leaders, especially after regime change.
A poll by Gallup Korea last month showed that 48 per cent of respondents opposed granting amnesty to Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who is also jailed for corruption. Only 44 per cent supported the move.
Friday’s decision came as a surprise, as reports had said the two former presidents were “unlikely” to be included in a list of New Year’s special pardons reviewed by the Justice Ministry earlier this week.
Experts say Park’s pardon might work to sway public sentiment towards Mr Moon and help the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung win votes in conservative strongholds that are loyal to Park and her father – former president Park Chung-hee, whose economic policies lifted South Korea out of poverty in the 1970s.
Asia specialist Sean King from New York-based consulting firm Park Strategies said Park’s pardon was a “crafty, shrewd move” by Mr Moon.
Mr King noted Park was thrown behind bars by prosecutor-turned-presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol from the main opposition, the conservative People Power Party (PPP). Park had contested for the presidency on a conservative ticket.
“By pardoning Park, Moon Jae-in tries to appear magnanimous while hoping to turn the (PPP) against itself,” Mr King told The Straits Times. “Will Park’s hardcore supporters really want to get behind the man who helped put her in jail?”
Political science professor Kim Jae-chun of Sogang University said Park’s pardon was a “very meticulous political calculation” that could work in the DP’s favour in the upcoming presidential elections due in March next year. The DP’s candidate Mr Lee is neck and neck with the PPP’s Mr Yoon in the polls.
Mr Yoon has said he welcomes Park’s pardon, while Mr Lee, who had opposed the move, said he respects the President’s decision.
Prof Kim noted that Park had been in jail for four years and eight months – seven months longer than her short-lived term – and median voters are starting to feel the Moon administration is too harsh on Park.
He added that Park has a group of hardcore conservative supporters who “don’t like Yoon Suk-yeol very much and may launch a campaign against him”.
“There’s this latent dissatisfaction against Yoon as a conservative candidate,” said Prof Kim.
“He himself said he considered joining the Democratic Party but he wanted to change the regime so he had no choice but to join the PPP. So if Park speaks out against him, that would work to the Democratic Party’s advantage.”