Koreans have got accustomed to seeing former leaders stand trial for wrongdoings they committed while in office. Nevertheless, the verdict on former President Park Geun-hye made many shudder again with despair and anger over their disgraced leader.
It will take a while before the case is closed at the Supreme Court, but the heavy punishment meted out by the lower court verifies the gravity of Park’s misdeeds. In one sense, it also justified the candlelight vigil movement and the decision of the parliament and the Constitutional Court to oust her.
The Seoul District Court found Park guilty of all but two of the 18 charges filed by the prosecution, including bribery, coercion, abuse of power and leakage of government secrets.
A part of the court’s statement well summed up why Park deserves punishment: She abandoned her “constitutional responsibility” as president and put state affairs into chaos by allowing her confidante Choi Soon-sil and associates to peddle influence and helping Choi get personal gains.
Indeed, the list of misdeeds of which Park was found guilty makes one wonder whether she was the one who had occupied the nation’s highest elected office and took an oath to follow the mandate given by the people and safeguard the Constitution.
Park and her associates pressured conglomerates like Samsung, SK, Lotte and Posco to provide money or other favors to organizations controlled by Choi or people close to her. Altogether, the court found that Park and Choi took 23 billion won ($21.5 million) in bribes.
The court findings show that Park did not have any qualms about abusing presidential power even against a private company. In a case unrelated with Choi, Park had her top economic aide press the CJ Group to unseat its Vice Chairwoman Lee Mie-kyung in 2013.
Park was also behind a series of personnel and business decisions that favored people close to Choi. Choi’s associates got promotions or other favors.
The court also confirmed that the decision to fire three senior officials of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Ministry and replace executives of the Korea Equestrian Federation was made in favor of Choi and her daughter who was a dressage rider.
Park was found guilty of blacklisting arts and cultural figures who were critical of her conservative government or who were siding with liberal groups. Some of her former aides, including former Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon, had already been found guilty of the charges.
Despite all these, Park still denies most of the charges and even challenges the authority and legitimacy of the judiciary.
Park has been boycotting the trial since October when the court decided to extend her detention. She called the trial part of political revenge by the government of President Moon Jae-in, and expressed her distrust of the fairness of the court.
But few agree with her. The court rightfully pointed out that her denial of charges, despite the existence of evidence and testimonies, lack of repentance and shifting responsibilities to others are some of the reasons why it decided to hand out the heavy punishment of 24 years in prison and a fine of 18 billion won.
If there is any good Park can do for the nation, it would be respecting judgment of the judiciary, accepting responsibility for her misdeeds and offering sincere apologies to people.
The job left to the nation is to make sure Park and Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor who was also put behind bars on corruption charges last month, are the last former leaders being prosecuted.
What’s essential for the mission is to revise the Constitution in a way to curb the power of the president. President Moon also needs to learn lessons from Park and Lee and make sure the shameful history of the Korean presidency is not repeated.