South Korea’s highest court on Thursday upheld a 17-year prison sentence imposed by an appeals court on former President Lee Myung-bak on embezzlement and bribery charges. This is the final decision of the judiciary made in almost three years since the prosecution’s investigation of the case began in December 2017. Following the impeachment and imprisonment of former President Park Geun-hye for her manipulation of state affairs, the prosecution immediately directed its investigation toward Lee to ‘clean up deep-rooted evils’ after President Moon Jae-in took office. People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Minbyun, which are friendly toward the current administration, prompted the investigation by submitting an indictment that accuses Lee of being the real owner of auto parts company DAS.
Lee’s main charges are embezzlement of DAS’ funds and receiving 8.9 billion won from Samsung to pay for DAS’ litigation expenses in the U.S. during his presidency. Unlike Park who was indicted for her political scandal during her presidency, the prosecution indicted Lee for 16 charges, including those involving DAS before his inauguration, nine of which he was found guilty for. This is why Lee’s side says the investigation was a political retaliation to completely destroy the conservative.
While Park’s case is still pending at the Supreme Court’s second appeal trial, the conviction of Lee’s charges practically signals the closure of the efforts launched since the inauguration of the current administration to clean up the past and punish. For its remaining term of 1.5 years, the Moon administration should focus its best efforts on building a new future of integration by closing the era of punishment.
Of course, the wrong practices and old evils in the past should be corrected, but not every issue warrants the frame of cleaning up deep-rooted evils and punishment. Taking sides by branding those who share different opinions than the government policies as opposing forces against reform has become standard practice while excessive investigation to clean up the past is still ongoing in public offices. Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae is under criticism for abusing her authority over personnel affairs and inspection for prosecution reform, which prohibits investigation into current powers. This is why some say that the efforts to clean up old evils create more new evils.
Looking at the imprisonment and trials of former Presidents Lee and Park, the public longs for a former president who can live in peace after leaving office. It is also the current administration's responsibility to heal the conflicts and hurts caused by its efforts to punish the past wrongdoings. Laying a steppingstone toward it would be the least the administration can do to address the public’s longing.