South Korean Ex-President Lee Myung-bak Sentenced to Prison for Corruption
Lee Myung-bak, former president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) from 2008 to 2013, was sentenced to a 15-year jail term and fined 13 billion won (US$1.5 million) by the Seoul Central District Court on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Lee was found guilty on a range of 16 charges including bribery and embezzlement.
The court convicted Lee for acquiring bribes from numerous sources during his presidential election and office term. About 6.1 billion won (US$5.4 million) of these bribes came from Samsung, South Korea’s largest business conglomerate. Lee was found to have returned the courtesy by doing favors for Samsung’s executives. Most notably in 2009, when upon Samsung’s chairman, Lee Kun-hee, was convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion, Lee granted him a presidential pardon.
Furthermore, the court also acknowledged that DAS, which his brother was officially registered as owner, actually belonged to the former president.While the court also found that Lee had caused a 400 million won (US$352,000) loss for the state by accepting inappropriate money from a special fund of the National Intelligence Service, the court declined to recognize the loss as bribery.
Though Lee was absent for the nationally-televised sentencing on Friday, he made a 16-minute speech on Sept. 6 during his trial and termed the charges against him as “ridiculous allegations.” His lawyers stated that the charges were a means of “political retribution.” However, prosecutors termed his actions as examples of “corruption, government-business collusion, and moral hazard.” Lee has been given one week from the sentencing to make appeals to the court.
Lee, who was arrested on March 22 this year, started as a worker at the Hyundai Construction Company, where he rose through executive ranks and eventually became the CEO. He resigned from Hyundai and joined politics in 1992 as a National Assembly member from the conservative New Korea Party.
He served as the mayor of Seoul from 2002 until he won the presidency in 2007. His administration faced numerous challenges: mass protests over the import of American beef, which was allegedly spreading mad cow disease; the global financial crisis; and the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette ROKS Cheonan.
Lee is not the first president of South Korea to face such corruption charges. Seven of the country’s 12 presidents since 1948 have been involved in similar scandals. As a matter of fact, all four living former presidents of South Korea — Park Geun-hye (2013 -2017), Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988), and now Lee — have either been convicted or are serving jail time for corruption charges. Some link the prominence of corruption in the presidency to South Korea’s authoritarian past which normalized “asking money from chaebol executives in return for political favors.” Furthermore, the lack of democratic checks on the Presidency in the ROK Constitution is cited as another reason for the prevalence of such abuses of power.
Moon Jae-in, the current president, focused his presidential campaign around fighting corruption in politics and ending close ties between politics and businesses. Enjoying the support of two-thirds of Koreans, Moon has garnered a “clean” reputation thus far. In the light of the recent trials against former presidents, observers in Korea are divided in their perception of these events. While some see this as political reform where the corrupt deeds of the past are being tried to move towards fair and transparent politics, others wonder whether these trials are a consequence of an “unforgiving political environment” where liberals currently have the upper hand.