South Korea's Ex-President Sentenced To 24 Years For Corruption

Apr 6, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 2:52 pm

A court in Seoul has found former South Korean President Park Geun-hye guilty on a raft of charges in the sprawling corruption case that led to her impeachment.

She has been sentenced to 24 years in prison — effectively a life sentence for the 66-year-old. Park was also fined nearly $17 million.

The panel of judges at the Seoul Central District Court found Park guilty of crimes including bribery, abuse of power and leaking state secrets. Park has maintained her innocence, saying she's a victim of "political revenge." Her lawyers plan to appeal.

In a verdict broadcast live and streamed in cabs, offices and cake shops, the court ruled Park did pressure top business executives to donate millions of dollars to slush funds run by her friend and confidant, Choi Soon-sil in return for government favors. Choi was sentenced to 20 years in prison in February.

The corruption scandal, which first began unraveling the Park presidency in the fall of 2016, ensnared dozens of government officials and businesses.

She's been in prison since the spring of 2017 and did not show up to hear her sentence being read aloud.

Park is the daughter of South Korea's former dictator Park Chung-hee and was the nation's only female president. A tragic figure after the separate assassinations of her mother and father in the 1970s, she rose to political prominence helped by nostalgia for her father's rule. But her presidency was controversial from the start, dogged by admissions that the country's spy agency flooded social media channels in the final days of the presidential election to help her to victory.

The fall 2016 revelations that her close confidant, Choi, who had no official government position, was editing national policy documents and making behind-the-scenes decisions for the president led to street protests in which hundreds of thousands of Koreans called for Park's resignation. When Park defiantly stayed in office, lawmakers impeached her in December 2016 and a court removed her in March of last year.

Park still has supporters, though, and they turned up Friday before the court proceedings began.

They carried flags and banners reading: "Immediately release innocent President Park Geun-hye," and "Stop murderous political revenge."

Se Eun Gong contributed to this post.

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South Korea's former president may be spending the rest of her life in jail. A Seoul court handed down a 24-year sentence to Park Geun-hye on more than a dozen abuse of power and bribery charges. That happened just hours ago. This is all part of a corruption scandal that led to her ouster last year. NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul with more on the verdict. Hey there, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: So what did the judges conclude?

HU: Well, the Seoul Central District Court has found Park on 16 out of 18 charges that were against her. Not only does she face the jail time, she also was slapped with a $17 million fine. And on top of the bribery and abuse of power charges you've mentioned, she's also guilty of coercion and leaking government secrets. That bribery charge is wrapped up with the nation's top conglomerates like Samsung. And the judge has found that Park and her confidant orchestrated an elaborate scheme to force those companies to pony up tens of millions of dollars into a slush fund in return for government favors.

INSKEEP: Well, Elise, I want to ask about the atmosphere here. I'm thinking about the United States, where there was a president who was ousted, Richard Nixon, and his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him because he said, look, putting a former president on trial - too traumatic, too awful for the country. This has to end. That was the decision he made. Clearly, a very different decision made in South Korea. What's it like to be there right now?

HU: Well, because she was removed from office already as part of this case, the expectation was that Park would be found guilty and stay in jail. But the reading of this verdict from the bench was a pretty dramatic moment, since it was the first time that a big trial like this - its verdict - was broadcast live on TV. So all over the country, people were sharing in this moment. A lot of taxi drivers in Seoul have TV screens on their dashboards, and so they had that on. We saw it in doctors' offices, cake shops. Everyone was watching this verdict being read out loud together.

INSKEEP: Wow. Did it affect the quality of traffic on Seoul's streets to everybody watching the TV screens while they should be driving their taxis?

HU: (Laughter) Traffic is always bad.

INSKEEP: I guess it couldn't be any worse, yeah. What does the former president have to say about all this, anyway?

HU: She's been denying all the charges. And while everybody else was watching this verdict, she wasn't. She refused to show up for her trial and the verdict today. This has been going on since last May, the trial itself. And today, Park remained in jail instead of appearing in court.

INSKEEP: Has this - very briefly - has this in any way distracted the new government, which is in the middle of some rather delicate negotiations with North Korea?

HU: Not so much. I would say that because a lot of these headlines were expected and the sentence was going - the trial was going to end one way or the other, the Moon administration has been focusing on its, you know, foreign policy in the run up to the April 27 summit between Moon Jae-in, the current president, and Kim Jong Un for the past few weeks now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul. Elise, thanks.

HU: You bet.