By Lee Kyung-min
The prosecution demanded a 30-year prison term for former President Park Geun-hye, Tuesday, at the latest hearing in a corruption trial stemming from an influence-peddling scandal that removed her from office. It also called for the court to fine her 118.5 billion won ($110 million). The Seoul Central District Court held the final hearing for Park, who again refused to appear citing health problems. If she is found guilty, the sentencing for Park, who was indicted for receiving 59.2 billion won in bribes among 18 charges, will be held April 6.
The harsh sentence demand was widely expected as taking 100 million won ($97,000) or over in bribes is punishable by a minimum prison term of ten years. The Supreme Court sentencing guideline stipulates that a minimum of an 11-year prison term be imposed for those who received 500 million won or over in bribes. Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime friend and the central figure in the scandal, who faced 13 out of the 18 charges Park did, was sentenced to 20 years.
Prosecutors said Park deserved harsh punishment for the influence-peddling scandal that undermined constitutional values and the public trust in the judicial system. The charges against her were substantiated by evidence including witness statements and meeting minutes made by the presidential chief of staff and presidential secretaries, they added. “Park is the central figure in the influence-peddling scandal. She was head of state and a political figure with ultimate power, and had full authority in managing administrative affairs,” the prosecution said. “She gave powerful discretion to a private individual, Choi, thereby subjecting the public to the unprecedented trauma stemming from the scandal, from which we can never easily recover.”
Such an act, the prosecution added, violated the public’s expectation that the country would be governed by socially agreed-upon principles, and that individuals would be respected for their own merit not for their connections. “It also violated the public expectation that people should be guaranteed a fair opportunity regardless of their occupation or status and lead a life in a free and just country,” it said.
Allegations concerning Choi were raised multiple times but Park continued to deny them, dubbing them as “underhanded tactics to rile up the public” and “political retaliation,” a move by which she chose to distort the truth and deceive the public, it added. Fostering culture was her major policy initiative, however, Park orchestrated a scheme to deny state subsidies to cultural figures who had different political viewpoints than her, thereby suppressing free speech in the art sector, according to the prosecution.
The prosecution said she continued to remain uncooperative with investigative efforts, thereby reneging on her earlier promise to answer truthfully. “She never allowed the prosecution to search the presidential office and never appeared at Constitutional Court hearings or those in criminal trials for other defendants,” it said. “Park has shown no remorse or apologized, and has deflected responsibility to her close aides. We deem a corresponding punishment is required. An incident of this nature should never be repeated.”
In response, Park’s lawyers said she did not receive any benefit, financial or otherwise. “Park is single, with no children or spouse to support. She had no motive to seek financial benefit,” one said. Allegation that firms landed work contracts as a result of Choi’s influence lack merit, the lawyers said, as some of the firms implicated would have won the contracts without personal connections to her. Park and Choi were not briefed in detail about the allegations and many claims by the prosecution were based on supposition and conjecture, and lacked facts. The impeachment of Park did not call into question every aspect of state affairs she oversaw as former president, and while she should be subject to ethical and moral accountability, criminal punishment was unreasonable they added.
Almost all figures implicated in the scandal were convicted as courts said they conspired with Park to advance their interest, except for Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong. Lee was released on appeal after the Seoul High Court handed down a suspended prison term, overturning a lower court ruling that sentenced him to five years in prison.
Former chief of staff Kim Ki-choon and former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun are serving four-year and two-year prison term, respectively. They were indicted for abusing their power by creating a “cultural blacklist,” based on which over 9,000 liberal cultural figures and organizations were denied state support and subject to punitive measures for criticizing Park or policy initiatives under her administration. Punishments included budget reductions or unilateral termination of employment, which the appellate court said were a direct result of government policy directives, the tone of which was set after Park openly criticized the country’s cultural sector for being left-leaning.
Former presidential secretary An Chong-bum, who was indicted alongside Choi for conspiring with Park to have 50 business groups “donate” 77.4 billion won to two foundations ― Mir and K-Sports ― set up and controlled by Choi, is serving six-year prison term.
Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, indicted for giving 7 billion won to the K-Sports Foundation as a bribe in return for securing the group’s license to operate a duty-free shop in Seoul, is serving two-and-a-half-year prison term.
Former presidential secretary for civil affairs Woo Byung-woo was sentenced to two-and-a-half-year imprisonment for failing to prevent influence-peddling despite volumes of evidence that suggested Choi’s illicit activities. Woo, known for his “unrestricted” power and authority, was indicted for overlooking or aiding and abetting a wide range of criminal activities conducted by Choi.The prosecution had filed nine charges including abuse of power and dereliction of duty as head of the presidential office responsible for monitoring the corruption of high-ranking public officials.
Choi’s niece Jang Si-ho, former Vice Culture Minister Kim Jong, visual art director Cha Eun-taek, former Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, former CEO of the Korea Creative Content Agency Song Sung-gak are all serving prison terms. The court will also deliver verdict for former presidential secretary for economic affairs Cho Won-dong alongside that or Park’s. Cho was indicted for pressuring CJ Group Co-Chairman Sohn Kyung-shik to remove his niece Lee Mi-kyung from a CJ vice chair post in 2013.