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South Korea’s troubling history of jailing ex-presidents

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Half of all living former South Korean presidents are now in prison. On October 5, 2018, former president Lee Myung-bak was sentenced to 15 years for embezzling 24.6 billion won (roughly $12 million). Lee will join his successor, disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye, who last year began her 25-year sentence for various charges of corruption. Lee and Park’s lengthy prison sentences may seem striking for an established democracy. But the reality is these sentences are not anomalies; rather, they reveal how tenuous South Korea’s hold on democracy really is.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2018. As the Moon Jae-in administration moves toward ending the war with North Korea and enhancing inter-Korean ties, a strong South Korean democracy is imperative. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

South Korea and democracy did not get off on the right foot. From its first president-turned-dictator Rhee Syngman to its other president-turned-dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan (as well as a handful of others whose names we hardly remember because their terms were so short), South Korea arguably did not become a fully-fledged consolidated democracy until at least 2002. And while South Korea has transformed into one of the more stable democracies in East Asia, the fates of its former presidents have been bleak. Park was assassinated after nearly 20 years of rule; Chun was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the Gwangju Massacre (though his sentence was later commuted); Roh Tae-woo was jailed on the same counts as Chun (also pardoned); and Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun are deceased (the latter was impeached though not removed from office).

In democracies, corruption scandals are not uncommon, nor is the resulting public outcry. But in South Korea’s case, the public’s attitudes toward the erosion of democratic norms is worrying. While 60 percent of South Koreans opposed the impeachment of Roh in 2004, nearly 80 percent supported the ousting of Park Geun-hye. And worse, the percentage of South Koreans who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy is generally below 50 percent for all age groups. The combination of enthusiasm for the “lock him up” school of politics and clear apathy toward democratic institutions hints at serious trouble ahead, particularly given Seoul’s recent flirtation with authoritarianism, including the decision to whitewash its own history with North Korea.

As the Moon Jae-in administration moves toward ending the war with North Korea and enhancing inter-Korean ties, a strong South Korean democracy is imperative. When he visited Pyongyang last month, Moon was greeted with cheers of “Korea-is-one” and chants for reunification. But a non-democratic, reunified nation that looks more like North than South is not the one Korea or anyone should be working toward.

Olivia Schieber is the Program Manager for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies.

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