Saga of South Korea’s Presidents

By Ichiro Suzuki

The term of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has less than a year to go. The country gives a President only one non-reelectable five-year term. This brings up a question on how he lives once he is no longer a president. Life as a former president in South Korea is hardly quiet and peaceful. The most recent two former presidents are currently doing a time in prison, having been convicted after his/ her presidency was over. The latest one, Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from the office in 2017 while Lee Myung-bak was convicted and sentenced after he left the office. 

Park Chung-hee, the ruthless dictator that laid the groundwork for South Korea’s economic miracle in the 1970s and the 1980s, was shot by an officer with the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency) in 1979. The officer said Park was an obstacle to democracy, and the statement had truth in it. President Park had been targeted by North Korean agents and their sympathizers for years. He lost his wife, First Lady Yuk Young-soo, in an assassination attempt in 1974. His daughter Park Geun-hye, who later became president, was at the site of the bloodshed. 

It was not until 1993 when South Korea became democracy that meets the definition of the West, with the ascent of Kim Young-sam to power. Presidents who assumed the office prior to Kim Young-sam were military men with a strong penchant for autocracy though these men did their job in terms of economic development. Immediately after Park Chun-hee’s assassination, a pro-democracy movement sprang up in South Korea. However, Seoul Spring as it was called, was crushed by armed forces. Gwangju Massacre in 1980 claimed 144 lives of civilians. General Chun Doo-hwan who squashed the movement became the president the following year, and he served seven years. General Chun was succeeded by General Roh Tae-woo who was Chun’s right hand man in Gwangju Massacre. Messrs. Chun and Roe would be tried and convicted much later for their roles in the Massacre. General Chun was sentenced to death. Both of them were paroled later. 

After all, Kim Young-sam and his successor Kim Dae-jun were the only two presidents who did not face either arrest or prosecution and died in a natural cause. Roh Moo-hun, who succeeded Kim Dae-jun took his life by jumping off a cliff in a mountain shortly after his presidency was over, while he was under investigation by the Office of Prosecutors. 

As President Moon entered his final year, his approval rate has fallen to 36%, way down from over 80% at the time he entered the presidential Blue House four year ago. In 2017, Moon ran as a candidate of rectitude amid an uproar against Park Gwen-hue’s corruption. As an advocate of North-South harmony in the peninsula, President Moon invited North Korean athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeonChang, South Korea to form a unified Korean team. However, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un never diplomatically responded to Moon’s messages after the Olympics, and remained reckless. President Moon is at odds with the U.S., an ally, amid growing tension between the U.S. and China with which he has a sympathy with. 

South Korean presidents without fail become increasingly unpopular toward the end of the five-year term. Nonetheless, how President Moon has fallen is still alarming. It is alarming in terms not of his re-election prospects that do not exist in the first place but of his life after the Blue House. Prosecutors’ Office could dig into a former president’s conducts during his/her time in the office and the disgruntled public would give a wild support to such an investigation. South Korea’s court is often influenced by public opinions. This is a scary part of the country’s judicial system. Public sentiment can take precedence over cold, icy legality. 

A year ago, President Moon’s popularity bounced back as South Korea got COVID-19 under control relatively quickly. However, the rebound did not have a staying power as the country’s economic performances weighed on the president. House prices’ sharp rise has angered voters. House prices surged amid a weak economy in 2020, in response to an ultra-low interest rates that were initiated by the Fed. While higher house prices are witnessed around the world, the rate of appreciation stands out in South Korea, driving condos out of reach for the majority of Seoul citizens. Widening wealth gaps between the top 1% and the rest, which is also a global trend, made South Korean people furious since it has taken place under a liberal president who loves to talks about equality and distribution of wealth. 

President Moon has been preparing a bill to weaken the power of the Office of Prosecutors, perhaps for fear of what might happen to him when his presidency is over. The move, not surprisingly, has angered prosecutors, leading to resignation of Prosecutor General, Yoon Seok-youl. There is a speculation that Yoon runs for president next spring from the opposition. Conservatives already won landslide victories in mayoral elections in April in two largest cities, Seoul and Busan. The tide is turning against President Moon’s camp. It is not unreasonable to expect prosecutors strike back once a new president is inaugurated. President Moon’s life after the Blue House may not be so calm. 

Life of Past Presidents 

Park Chung-hee (3rd)
   Assassinated in 1979

Chun Doo-hwan  (5th)
   Sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in Gwangju Massacre in 1980.
       Pardoned by President Kim Young-sam

Roh Tae-woo (6th)
   Sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in Gwanju Massacre in 1980
       Pardoned by President Kim Young-sam

Roh Moo-hyun (9th)
   Committed suicide in 2009, a year after having left the office

Lee Myung-bak (10th)
   Convicted of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power in 2018. 
       Currently serving 15 years in prison

Park Geun-hye (11th)
   Impeached and removed from the office in 2017, the final year of her presidency.    
      Convicted of corruption and abuse of power. 
      Currently serving 25 years in prison
      
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About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.