On Thursday, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a 20-year jail sentence for former President Park Geun-hye over bribery and other offences as it ended a landmark corruption case that represented a stunning fall from grace for the first female leader and conservative symbol of the world.
The verdict suggests that Park, who was removed from office and imprisoned in 2017, will likely face a combined 22 years behind bars, following a separate conviction for allegedly interfering in the candidate candidates of her party ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections.
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But the expiration of her time in prison still makes her eligible for a special presidential pardon, a looming chance as the highly fractured population of the world faces the next presidential election in March 2022.
President Moon Jae-in, a democrat who, since Park’s suspension, secured the presidential by-election, has yet to explicitly discuss the prospect of his predecessor being freed. Recently, Moon saw his approval ratings dropping to new lows over economic issues, political crises and rising infections with coronavirus.
“The idea of pardoning Park and another imprisoned former president, Lee Myung-bak, who is serving a 17-year term on his own corruption charges, has been raised by at least one prominent member of the Moon Democratic Party, Chairman Lee Nak-yon, as a gesture of “national reconciliation.
Park, 68, described herself as a political revenge survivor. Since October 2017, she has declined to attend her trials and didn’t attend the decision on Thursday. Her counsel has not answered calls for comment.
Moon’s office had no immediate reaction to the decision.
Park, the daughter of assassinated military dictator Park Chung-hee, was convicted of colluding with her long-time confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to corrupt and extort millions of dollars from some of the biggest business groups in the world, including Samsung, while in office from 2013 to 2016.
She was also arrested on charges of accepting fraudulent monthly funds diverted from the budget of the department from her spy chiefs.
Park was impeached by lawmakers in December 2016 and formally suspended from office in March 2017 after the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment after weeks-long demonstrations by millions.
It was not entirely clear how the decision on Thursday would impact the legal saga of Samsung billionaire Lee Jae-yong.
Next week, Samsung Electronics’ 52-year-old chairman faces a verdict at the Seoul High Court in a retrial over allegations that he bribed Park and Choi to gain government approval for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that helped boost his dominance over the largest business group in the world.
Prosecutors are demanding a nine-year jail sentence for Lee, who has been charged separately on allegations of bribery of asset markets, lack of confidence and auditing irregularities in connection with the merger.
He was depicted as a survivor of presidential power manipulation by Lee’s attorneys and characterised the 2015 agreement as part of “normal business activity.”
Choi is serving an 18-year jail term at the time.
Before the Supreme Court returned the cases back to a trial court in 2019, Park initially served a jail sentence of more than 30 years.
In 2018, the Seoul High Court sentenced her to 25 years in prison after jointly investigating her for fraud, extortion, misuse of authority and other convictions.
But in October 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the Seoul High Court to deal with the bribery charge of Park independently from other allegations, relying on a statute forcing it to deal with cases involving a president or other government officials, even though the suspected offences are committed together.
In July 2019, the High Court gave Park a five-year sentence on the spy fund allegations, but in November, the Supreme Court has ordered a retrial of the case, instructing the lower court to extend a charge of causing damages in state funds more generally.
Prosecutors appealed after Park was awarded a 20-year sentence by the Seoul High Court in July last year after combining the two lawsuits.
She will be released in 2039 at the age of 87 if Park gets to completely complete her term.