Pardon with cautionPresident Moon Jae-in is expected to announce a large number of special pardons early next year. The whole picture will be revealed after the Ministry of Justice finishes its ongoing deliberations on the scope of the annual presidential pardon soon. The special pardon to be announced before the March 1 Liberation Day is a tough decision for the head of state to make given its sensitive timing — shortly before the Mar. 9 presidential election. Justice Minister Park Beom-kye suggested that pardons will be granted on a large scale.
The justice ministry had instructed prosecution offices across the country to submit the names of inmates on misdemeanor charges, obedient prisoners and those put behind bars for violent protests. A special pardon for unrestrained demonstrators, in particular, raises concerns about the liberal administration’s camouflaged campaign to rally support in the presidential election. They include protesters who violently opposed the deployment of the U.S. Thaad missile defense system, the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island or a revision to the Minimum Wage Act, for instance. Many of the inmates, including members of the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), are considered political allies of the liberal Moon administration.
Moon has so far included thuggish protesters in his special pardons. In 2019 and 2020, for example, participants in rallies against the American beef import, the Thaad deployment, the Sewol ferry sinking, and the Korea-Japan agreement on the compensation for Japanese wartime sexual slaves were granted special pardons. A former ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker and former Seoul education chief also were pardoned for their ungrounded allegations and violation of the Political Fund Act, respectively, not to mention a former chairman of the KCTU despite his orchestration of violent protests against the government. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) has often attacked the Blue House for pardoning people for political purposes.
Former conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye will not likely be granted a special pardon this time, as hinted at by a Blue House official’s remarks against special pardons for them due to a “lack of public consensus.” The decision will likely be left to the next administration after the election. While DP presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung opposes presidential pardons without an apology, his rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the PPP said he will exonerate them if elected president.
A head of state can exercise the right to grant a special pardon. But it should be exercised discreetly, as it means a reversal of previous court rulings. If many inmates prisoned for violent demonstrations are offered special pardons, it can fuel people’s disrespect for law enforcement. The KCTU frequently staged illegitimate rallies even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
If the Blue House and government want to pardon their political allies ahead of the presidential election, they cannot avoid an avalanche of criticism from the people, let alone going against the spirit of national cooperation.