Does the law apply to presidents?
Former president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office on March 10, was arrested this morning, South Korea time, in connection to the corruption scandal that caused her impeachment. She is facing 13 potential charges, and she can be held for up to 20 days before she must be either released or indicted. She is suspected of having coerced companies like Samsung to donate US$70 million to groups linked to her aide, Choi Soon-sil, who has also been arrested, in exchange for providing political favors.
Park becomes the latest in a long line of disgraced ex-Korean presidents.
The last time South Korean presidents were arrested was 1995, when Chun Doo-hwan and his successor Roh Tae-woo were charged and convicted in relation to the coup that brought Chun to power and the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, a military suppression of a protest-turned-riot that killed hundreds. Both were pardoned in December 1997, in an effort to bring reconciliation to the young democracy.
Kim Dae-jung ran for president in 1997 on a platform of “national reconciliation and unity.” Although he had been kidnapped and nearly assassinated by government forces during the administration of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, and arrested and sentenced to death by the Chun regime, Kim Dae-jung felt it was better to push forward than to dwell on the social and political divides of the past. The pardon of Chun and Roh actually took place during the lame duck period of Kim Young-sam, another democracy activist and the second democratically-elected Korean president (following Roh).
Kim Young-sam actually came to power with the help of the party that would become today’s Saenuri/Korean Liberty Party, Park Geun-hye’s party, then called the Grand National Party (GNP). After the pardon, some members of the GNP were outraged the murderous and corrupt ex-presidents would get off the hook. Students at universities protested.
“It is disappointing that the first thing the President-elect did was to ask the pardon for the people who destroyed the Constitution, tortured the people and murdered the people,” said Lee Shin Bom, a member of the National Assembly from President Kim’s Grand National Party,
Now supporters of the GNP/Saenuri/KLP are protesting outside Park’s house because she was arrested. The elderly group is waving flags, and about 30 laid down in the street, according to local reports.
The last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, was also under investigation for corruption, but he committed suicide before any charges were brought.
Now in the liberal Minjoo Party primary, candidates are debating whether conservatives should be brought into their administration. Ahn Hee-jung, who lingers far behind Moon Jae-in at second, calls for a reconciliatory approach. The others say there should be no room for the crooks at the table (and indeed, they don’t need to make room, based on the polls). At the final protests before the court announced its decision, anti-Park protesters held signs calling for her arrest.
Twenty years after Chun’s pardon, Korea is a more mature democracy. It has reached the stage now when Park might see that the presidents aren’t exempt from the law.