Departing South Korean Leader Creates Furor With Pardons

The New York Times, January 29, 2013

SEOUL, South Korea — With less than one month left in office, the departing president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, granted special pardons on Tuesday to political allies, a longtime friend and dozens of others who have been convicted of corruption and other crimes. The pardons ignited a rare quarrel between him and the president-elect.

The office of the incoming president, Park Geun-hye, had warned Mr. Lee for days not to "abuse his presidential power" by granting pardons in his last days in office that would "go against the will of the people."

Mr. Lee ignored that appeal. "This is not an abuse of presidential authority," Mr. Lee was quoted by his office as saying during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. "It is carried out according to law and procedure." His office said Mr. Lee noted that far fewer people had been granted presidential clemency during his five years in office than under his predecessors.

The highly unusual dispute between Mr. Lee and Ms. Park, who are members of the governing Saenuri Party, rekindled a long-running controversy in South Korea over the president's clemency power. Presidents typically issue pardons several times during their terms, often just before national holidays, and hundreds or thousands of people at a time may be freed from prison or have restored civil rights that were revoked by a criminal conviction, like the right to run for political office. But the beneficiaries have often been prominent politicians, big businessmen and close associates of the president. Civic groups and others complain that such pardons help foster persistent corruption among the country's political and business elite by allowing the well connected to escape justice.

On the campaign trail, candidates for president often warn that people convicted of corruption should not expect a pardon. But once elected, they invariably announce a special amnesty near the end of the single five-year term they are allowed under the Constitution.

Mr. Lee, whose term ends Feb. 25, continued that pattern with special pardons for 55 people on Tuesday, including Chun Shin-il, a businessman and longtime friend, and Choi See-joong, a close ally and former cabinet member. Both were convicted of bribery and have served less than half of their prison terms.

The pardons also erased the criminal records of two allies of Mr. Lee who were convicted of bribery but avoided prison terms: Park Hee-tae, a former National Assembly speaker, and Kim Hyo-jae, a former senior aide.

Ms. Park's spokesman, Yoon Chang-jung, assailed the step. "Pushing ahead with pardoning those involved in irregularities and corruption will receive a national reproach," Mr. Yoon said on Tuesday. "President Lee should bear all responsibility."

The Democratic United Party, the main opposition group, raised suspicions that Ms. Park's criticism of Mr. Lee was insincere and meant to shield her from any public anger over the pardons. In fact, a close ally of Ms. Park was among those pardoned on Tuesday.

"We are appalled by the brazen arrogance, self-righteousness and lack of communication that President Lee is demonstrating until his last day in office," the party's spokesman, Jung Sung-ho, said in a statement. "President-elect Park Geun-hye should be held responsible, too, for doing nothing to stop the pardons except uttering a few words of criticism."

Ms. Park's transition team was thrown into disarray on Tuesday when her choice for prime minister withdrew his name because of reports raising suspicions that he and his family accumulated a fortune through real-estate speculation. The nominee, Kim Yong-joon, also headed the transition team.



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