[Editorial] Presidential pardons need to be kept in check

Posted on : 2007-02-10 15:12 KST Modified on : 2007-02-10 15:12 KST

There is someone out there who embezzled 28.6 billion won (US$30.6 million) of company funds and used it to pay his myriad living expenses and loan interest, and then tried to hide the fact that he sexed up the company’s financial records. The prosecution didn’t even place him under arrest ahead of his trial. A court found him guilty but gave him a suspended sentence, so he never went to prison. The chief justice of the Supreme Court publicly asked whether "the people will put up with this," but his suspension of sentence was upheld upon appeal. Now, not six months since his sentence was settled once and for all, he has been included in the list of those who are going to be part of an upcoming special presidential pardon. We’re talking about Park Yong-song, former chairman of the Doosan Group.

On February 9, the government decided to grant 434 pardons, to a group that includes 160 businesspeople and 223 others convicted of violating election laws. The justification for this - as is always the case - is "reviving the economy" and "reconciliation." There are a few individuals not included in the mass pardon because of especially negative public opinion, but some of the pardons being given make no sense. In the meantime, persons convicted of "crimes of livelihood" (committed in the course of trying to make a living) and prisoners of conscience are not being pardoned. This is a ritual that regularly happens in the end stages of each administration or ahead of elections. For some time now, there have been strong calls for limits to be set on the presidential right to grant pardons in order to prevent that authority from being used in an imbalanced way such as this, but once again, you are embarrassed to have to see those in power choose public scorn for a short while so that they can issue the same kind of unequal amnesty.

We cannot continue to allow this authority to be abused when it harms the principles of the rule of law and the separation of the three branches of government, making the people cynical. The law on amnesty needs to be revised so as to prevent its presidential abuse. This is not to say that the National Assembly hasn’t tried to amend the law, either. During the Sixteenth National Assembly, the Grand National and Democratic parties passed legislation revising the law, but it was vetoed by then-acting president Goh Kun. The bill passed at that time called for the National Assembly’s views to be heard ahead of special pardons, but we think that would risk having pardons become the subject of political bargaining and thus this idea must be approached with prudence. Other bills that have been proposed would have required that violators of certain laws, like some relating to business, for example, be automatically ineligible for pardons, but we should listen to the many voices saying that such legislation would likely be unconstitutional.

We believe the National Assembly should draft a new bill, one that takes these potential issues into consideration. At the very least, the law should be made clear and more specific, disqualifying from pardon those who have just been sentenced or who have not served at least a specified portion of their sentences. Since a pardon destroys the effectiveness of a court decision, the executive branch should be made to listen to the views of the courts, too. There is a presidential election coming at the end of 2007. That means that without changes put into place, the system of special pardons could encourage illegal campaign activity in the months ahead.

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