Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was jailed for graft, has been granted an unexpected pardon by her successor.
A conservative, Park served as president from 2013 until 2017 when she was impeached and removed from office. She was handed a 25-year prison sentence in 2018 for a range of offences including corruption and abuse of power. The sentence was later reduced to 22 years.
A statement issued by South Korea’s justice ministry on Friday on behalf of Moon Jae-in, the leftwing president, said that the pardon had been issued “from the perspective of national reconciliation”.
“We should overcome the pain of the past era and move forward into a new era. Instead of being trapped in the past and fighting each other, we should gather forces to move on to the future,” said Moon, who also noted Park’s deteriorating health.
Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor, is serving a 17-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement and was not included on the list of more than 3,000 prisoners to receive a New Year pardon.
Park, 69, is the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea as an authoritarian president between 1963 and 1979. He was assassinated by his close friend Kim Jae-gyu, then the director of South Korea’s national intelligence agency.
Park Geun-hye’s mother, Yuk Young-soo, had been assassinated five years earlier during an attempt on the general’s life by North Korean sympathisers. The young Park returned to South Korea from studies in France to serve as first lady in her mother’s place.
As the daughter of an authoritarian leader who remains both respected and reviled, Park proved a divisive and — to her critics — ineffective president.
Her presidency descended into ignominy after it emerged that she had been beholden to a corrupt relationship with her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman with links to the occult. It is alleged that Choi claimed to be able to communicate with Park’s dead mother.
The allegations sparked huge street protests, and Park was eventually prosecuted for coercing businesses into making donations worth tens of millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi.
Among the businesspeople convicted of paying millions of dollars in bribes was Lee Jae-yong. The Samsung heir donated horses to assist the equestrian career of Choi’s daughter as part of a campaign to secure his control over the Korean conglomerate.
Lee was released on parole in August. The Moon administration justified his release as being in South Korea’s national economic interest.
Moon, whose term as president comes to an end in May, had previously ruled out pardoning Park.
But analysts said that Park’s release, while unpopular with progressive voters, could alleviate anger among some conservative voters at her continued imprisonment ahead of presidential elections in March.