South Korea’s impeached president, Park Geun-hye, is on trial for the corruption charges that have engulfed her presidency.
Park pleaded not guilty to charges including bribery, abuse of state power and leaking state secrets. The maximum sentence for corruption in South Korea is life.
Park was officially removed from office earlier in March by the country’s Constitutional Court. She is said to have violated the constitution and the law during her time in office and now faces the criminal charges in connection with her friend and advisor, Choi Soon-sil, which has also seen the acting head of the Samsung Group on trial.
This week, Choi was sentenced to three years in jail, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. The sentencing was the first ruling against Park’s close friend, and focuses on evidence that Choi conspired with university officials to give her daughter preferential treatment.
Corruption in South Korea
Park is the first democratically-elected president to be removed from office however, corruption has managed to taint the office of South Korea’s leader for the past few years.
“All other presidents have had some sort of corruption scandal attached to them, whether directly or in relation to people in their families that have been making money of the contacts of the presidency.
This is not new,” Professor Hazel Smith, research associate at the Centre of Korean Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), told Verdict.
What is new in Park’s case, however, is that this impeachment has been successful.
“One of the reasons people are so angry in South Korea is because they had hoped to have got out of the cycle of presidential corruption,” said Smith, referring to the protests that have been taking place in the country’s capital Seoul, that saw two people killed recently.
The state prosecutors have said that the ex-leader allowed Choi to use her presidential connections to pressure companies to give tens of millions of dollars to a foundation she established, in exchange for favourable treatment from the government.
As the trial began in Seoul this morning, Park’s lawyers said there was “no reason for president Park to force companies to donate money which she was unable to use herself.”
Dozens of people have been investigated or arrested in connection with the scandal. The acting head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, began his own corruption trial back in March, which has seen him charged with embezzlement and perjury in relation to Park’s case.
According to the special prosecutor Park Young Soo, Lee’s case is “one of the most deep-rooted and typical cases involving unhealthy relations between politicians and businessmen.”
What will happen during the next presidency?
Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the previous election, became the new head of state for the country earlier this month. Relations with North Korea will be at the forefront of his administration, particularly as a result of the country’s recent nuclear weapons tests.
“President Park had in practice taken a view of minimising any contacts with North Korea and Moon Jae-in is much more likely to look for ways to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict between the two,” said Smith.
This will have far-reaching consequences for South Korea. After North Korea’s recent missile tests, South Korea decided to let the U.S build an anti-missile defence system. Beijing protested the decision, by arguing that it could be used to track its own military operations, and has called on citizens to boycott all things South Korean.
The Korean supermarket-chain Lotte has particularly suffered as a result of this, as the US is building the defence system on land Lotte owns. As well as supermarkets, Chinese authorities have denied visas to Korean pop stars and ordered the country’s online travel agencies to stop selling Korean-related tours. This travel ban could lead to a 20 decline in Korea’s GDP growth this year, according to Credit Suisse.
A Moon presidency could affect all this and more.
“It may mean greater frictions in US-South Korean relations and rising perceptions that [the country’s] leadership is not in sync with the US or able to deal effectively with North Korea,” said Snyder.
After Park was arrested on March 31, a spokesperson for Moon said this was the first step to rebuilding a collapsed nation.
“Former President Park’s arrest amounts to upholding the people’s stern order to build a nation where justice and common sense stand firm. Now we will turn a page of our painful history and gather our strengths to build a fair and clean nation,” said Moon’s spokesperson, Park Kwang-on, in a statement.
Scott Synder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations believes it is best for South Korea to move on from the scandal that has consumed it over the past few months.
“The political vacuum in South Korea over the course of the past few months has constituted a growing risk for South Korea; the sooner a new president is elected, the sooner that risk can be overcome,” he told Verdict.
“The best way [for South Korea] to recover is to hold elections for new leadership and to allow the prosecutions to be completed and justice upheld according to the country’s laws and practices.”
What does the sentencing against Choi mean for Park?
In June, Choi was sentenced to jail for three years for the first of the charges brought against her. In the sentencing ruling, the Seoul Central District court said it “accepts the evidence that Choi conspired with school officials to give her daughter favours.”
The ruling continued: “Choi violated laws and proper procedures to benefit her daughter.”
Choi has been charged with facilitating her daughter’s admission to the prestigious Ewha Women’s University in Korea. Choi is said to have conspired with the head of the University, who has also been sentenced to two years in prison, to alter her daughter’s academic record.
Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, is also involved with other charges brought against Choi. Prosecutors have alleged that Samsung Electronics provided Chung with financial assistance to sponsor her equestrian training. These charges have been denied by Choi, and the acting head of Samsung’s Group chief, Lee Jae-yong, who is currently being held in detention too.
Will this sentence make a difference to the other charges and trials?
“It’s very much like the British legal process – you cannot predict what will happen. You get a charge and you get judged based on what is in front of the courts on those particular charges. It’s an indepedent, democratic, legal process,” explains Smith.
Though we cannot predict at this stage what will happen during the trials, Smith believes that even if Park is sentenced she may not serve a full sentence in prison.
“What’s happened in the past when presidents in Korea have been found guilty, in due course theyve been released early or pardoned. I think we will expect to see that Park will in front of the courts, and if she’s found guilty of various charges, it’s likely in the future that she will be either quietly pardoned or released early from prison.”