Pardon our skepticismPresident Moon Jae-in’s pardons of a number of convicts friendly to the government are surprising as it could restore their rights as citizens — like running in elections — ahead of the April 15 general election next year. His decision reflects growing demands from labor unions and civic groups to release the individuals. A good example is the pardoning of Han Sang-kyun, the former chairman of the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), who led violent protests against the conservative Park Geun-hye administration.
Han was released on parole in May last year after serving part of a three-year sentence in jail for orchestrating an illegal rally to protest the former administration’s labor reforms. The steel pipes and ladders used in his clashes with the police left scores of people injured. Yet he took refuge in a Buddhist temple in downtown Seoul and ridiculed the law enforcement agency for failing to catch him. “Let’s show the government that we can paralyze the whole country if we are outraged,” he shouted.
As a presidential candidate, Moon denounced former conservative presidents’ abuse of special pardons. In fact, he refrained from issuing presidential pardons after vowing not to grant them to criminals involved in corruption, economic fraud, and violent protests. Therefore, his sudden announcement of a special pardon of Han makes us wonder if it is designed to gather as many allies as possible with less than four months left before the election.
The government also granted special pardons to a number of convicts involved in socially explosive cases such as the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island and the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system. These protesters tried to thwart the government’s legitimate policies with force. Even if presidential pardons are allowed by our Constitution, it goes too far if a president grants immunity to violent protesters who reject the very foundation of the rule of law.
We hope Moon’s pardons are not designed to calm complaints from hawkish civic groups about his policies, including a controversial real estate policy. The president must not brush off opposition parties’ criticisms by “paying back the debt” to allies who joined candlelight vigils to oust President Park Geun-hye.
The Blue House said Moon’s pardons are aimed at achieving national integration. But the government did not pardon any business leaders serving jail terms for breach of trust, a very subjective offense. What the government needs most is more balance.