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South Korea's Moon Pardons Disgraced Former President Park

FILE - Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives to attend a hearing on the extension of her detention at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea on Oct. 10, 2017.
FILE - Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives to attend a hearing on the extension of her detention at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea on Oct. 10, 2017.

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and jailed in a far-reaching corruption scandal that rocked the country in 2016 and 2017, has been pardoned by her successor.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry on Friday included Park in a list of those granted a special amnesty for the sake of “national harmony.”

“We must overcome the pain of the past and move forward into the new era,” President Moon Jae-in said in a statement. “Now is the time to boldly join forces toward the future rather than quarrel with each other in the past.”

Moon added that Park’s health had deteriorated significantly during her five years in prison.

The 69-year-old Park, who was serving a 22-year jail sentence, had experienced problems with her back, shoulder, and mental health. She had spent much of her jail sentence in a hospital.

Her pardon is likely to have far-reaching political consequences in South Korea, which is fiercely divided over Park’s legacy. The issue will figure prominently in the country’s presidential campaign ahead of a March 9 vote.

Park is the daughter of South Korea’s longtime military dictator, Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979. The Parks are reviled by South Korea’s liberals, the driving force behind the country’s democratization in the 1980s. However, many conservatives still look fondly on the military dictatorship, saying it helped lead to South Korea’s rapid economic development.

Park, South Korea’s first and only female president, was removed from office in 2016 following months of nationwide protests, known as the Candlelight Movement, demanding her ouster. She was imprisoned in 2017 on charges of abuse of power, coercion and bribery.

Her potential pardon had long been the subject of debate in South Korea, where it is very common for ex-presidents to be jailed, often by their political rivals. In the end, Park, a conservative, was pardoned by Moon, a liberal.

It is not clear how the move will affect the presidential campaign. Polls now show a tight race between ruling party nominee and former provincial governor Lee Jae-myung and main conservative candidate Yoon Seok-youl, a former chief prosecutor.

'A new era'

Both candidates face a tricky situation when it comes to Park’s pardon.

Yoon, the conservative candidate, on Friday welcomed the move, saying the pardon was late but justified. However, he is in a difficult position, having led Park’s 2017 prosecution — a moment that effectively made him a star in South Korean politics.

“Yoon is the one who put her in prison. So Yoon is also not in a good position,” said Lee Sang-sin, a researcher with the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Lee, the liberal candidate, had publicly opposed a pardon; he may now find it necessary to criticize President Moon, a member of his own party. The pardon may spark a backlash among liberals, Lee, the KINU researcher, said.

According to a poll last month, 39% of South Korean voters supported a pardon, while 44% opposed it.

Among supporters of South Korea’s ruling liberal Democratic Party, 77% of voters opposed a pardon.

In his statement, Moon pleaded with those who may oppose the pardon, saying it should serve as an opportunity for unity, harmony, and the beginning of a new era.”

“Considering the many challenges we face,” he said, “national unity and humble inclusiveness are more urgent than anything else.”