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[News analysis] Park Geun-hye convicted of bribery but not abuse of authority, sentenced to 22 years

한겨레 입력 2021. 01. 15. 17:36 수정 2021. 01. 15. 17:56

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Supreme Court adopts strict interpretation of what constitutes abuse of power
Former President Park Geun-hye during one of her trials. (Hankyoreh archives)

On Jan. 14, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld former president Park Geun-hye’s conviction on charges of bribery and abuse of power, concluding judicial proceedings that have gone on for three years and nine months. This marked the fifth ruling since Park was arrested and indicted in April 2017 following her impeachment.

Previously, Park had been tried by a district court, a high court, and the Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the high court before hearing one final appeal. Altogether, Park is set to serve 22 years in prison.

There had initially been two separate cases against Park, one dealing with influence-peddling and the other with appropriating money from the special activity fund of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). But when the two cases reached the Supreme Court, they were merged and returned to the high court for further review.

In the influence-peddling case, the district court convicted Park and her confidante Choi Seo-won (originally named Choi Soon-sil) of coercing conglomerates into making donations to the Mir Foundation and the K-Sports Foundation and accepting bribes from the Samsung Group to support the equestrian activities of Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. This court sentenced Park to 24 years in prison and fined her 18 billion won (US$16.4 million). On appeal, the high court convicted Park on additional bribery charges, raising her sentence to 25 years in prison and a fine of 20 billion won (US$18.2 million).

In the separate case about the NIS special activity fund, Park was sentenced to six years in prison by a district court and to five years in prison by a high court.

When the two cases were merged and remanded to the high court, Park was acquitted on some of the charges, including that she’d abused her authority by ordering the creation and execution of a “cultural blacklist” that blocked government funding for artists and other cultural figures who were critical of the Park administration. The Supreme Court upheld the high court’s ruling in its decision on Jan. 14.

Bribery conviction upheld

In its second review of the case, the Supreme Court upheld Park’s bribery convictions, including a count added by the high court in regard to the Samsung Group providing 1.63 billion won (US$1.5 million) in money to a winter sports training center.

Park’s conviction was also upheld on other counts of bribery, including 7 billion won (US$6.4 million) promised by the Samsung Group to support Chung’s equestrian activities and 7 billion won and 8.9 billion won (US$8.1 million) demanded from the Lotte Group and the SK Group, respectively, as donations to the K-Sports Foundation.

But the Supreme Court sided with the district and high courts in acquitting Park on charges of abuse of power and extortion in connection with her request for the Samsung Group to donate 20.4 billion won (US$18.6 million) to the Mir Foundation and the K-Sports Foundation.

The Supreme Court categorized the 200 million (US$182,253) in NIS special activity funds that Park received from former Director Lee Byeong-ho as a bribe, but the 3.45 billion won (US$3.1 million) she received from former NIS Directors Nam Jae-jun and Lee Byeong-gi as a loss inflicted on the state treasury.

Court offers strict interpretation of abuse of power

In its review of the merged cases, the high court acquitted Park on charges connected with the cultural blacklist, and those were the only charges the prosecutors disputed in their final appeal to the Supreme Court. As such, the point under contention was whether Park had forced officials to overstep their responsibilities when she ordered the exclusion of certain cultural and arts figures from government funding.

The high court had acquitted Park on that charge, finding that the evidence submitted by the prosecutors wasn’t sufficient to establish that executives with the Arts Council Korea had overstepped their responsibilities when they sent a list of nominees for council members to government officials at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

For the charge of abuse of power to stick, Park needed to have ordered government officials to commit actions that went beyond their responsibilities. But the high court said that Park’s orders couldn’t be definitely distinguished from official duties. The court made a similar ruling about charges that Park had unfairly meddled in deliberations for distributing funding for promoting culture and the arts.

The Supreme Court agreed with the high court’s stance on these issues. “We accept the decision of the high court, which acquitted the defendant on certain charges of abuse of power according to the standards for judgment that we provided in our en banc ruling in January 2020.”

When former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and former Blue House Senior Secretary for Political Affairs Cho Yoon-sun were indicted for abusing their power in connection with the cultural blacklist, the full panel of the Supreme Court offered a strict interpretation of the crime of abuse of power. “It’s normal for cooperation to be part of executive bodies’ decision making and execution of their decisions. It can’t be assumed that a party has overstepped its responsibilities simply because it has listened to and cooperated with another party’s request,” the Supreme Court said.

Acquittal on abuse of power charge reduces Park’s prison sentence by 10 years

Park’s prison sentence was reduced considerably by the high court’s review, which overturned an earlier conviction of extortion, and by the Supreme Court’s strict interpretation of abuse of power, in keeping with previous precedent. Before the high court revisited the case, Park had been facing 30 years in prison and a fine of 20 billion won (US$18.2 million).

But aside from the charges connected with the cultural blacklist, Park’s conviction was upheld on all other charges. The Supreme Court confirmed Park’s guilt on charges of demanding that Grand Korea Leisure make a contract with Double K Management and of meddling in the appointment of an executive surnamed Lee at Hana Bank. Park’s conviction for delivering Blue House documents to Choi Soon-sil (on the crime of leaking state secrets) was also allowed to stand.

“We respect the decision of the Supreme Court. We also look forward to an appropriate ruling from the high court that is reviewing charges against the recipient of the bribes,” said a spokesperson for the investigative team led by Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo, referring to Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong.

By Joh Yun-yeong, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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