Shameful special pardonsOutgoing President Lee Myung-bak is believed to be mulling special pardons before Lunar New Year’s Day (Feb. 10), which falls about two weeks before his last day in office. His former chief of staff Yim Tae-hee first hinted at the move, saying, “We have a long tradition from the ancient days. When a new king ascended to the throne, he opened up the prison. A special pardon is a symbolic move for reconciliation in power transition.” The Blue House joined in saying it has been receiving petitions from the business and religious sector for grand mercy and release ahead of the holiday as the last generous gesture from the president. It added no details about the timing or potential recepients.
Many suspect that the traditional ritual of outgoing presidents granting clemency would first benefit the president’s closest aides - his brother Lee Sang-deuk; his political mentor Choi See-joong, former head of the Korea Communications Commission; Chun Shin-il, former chairman of Sejoong Namo Tour; and Kim Jae-ho, former KT&G welfare foundation chairman and cousin of the first lady. All are serving jail terms for corruption.
Granting pardons is a constitutional right belonging to the president. It is an extraordinary action that overrules law and principle and therefore requires particular discretion. But past presidents have habitually given pardons to politicians and business leaders before leaving office. Former President Roh Moo-hyun pardoned 75 people, including his closest aides, on Dec. 31 in his final year. Two of his National Intelligence Service chiefs, Lim Dong-won and Shin Kuhn, were released just four days after they pleaded guilty to illegal spy activities.
The opposition Grand National Party (now the Saenuri Party) then criticized the move as an anti-constitutional act defying justice. President Lee promised early in his term that he would respect law and order and punish corruption without exception. But Lee turned increasingly tolerant and pardoned corrupt officials during his term. He is now considering releasing his closest aides and relatives. If he does so, he will be repeating the poor and outdated tradition of past presidents. President-elect Park Geun-hye vowed to limit the right to exercise pardons. The pardon question may be Lee’s last test of will.