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Yoon pardons tycoons, ex-President Park's aides

SK executive vice chairman, LIG chairman to have criminal record erased

Feb. 6, 2024 - 15:05 By Son Ji-hyoung
Former presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon attends at parliamentary hearing of the probe in a corruption scandal involving ex-president Park Geun-hye at the National Assembly on Dec. 7, 2016 in Seoul. (GettyImages)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday approved pardons for former President Park Geun-hye's aides, including former chief of staff Kim Ki-choon and former national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin, ahead of Seollal, or South Korea's Lunar New Year holiday.

The special pardon announcement came less than a week after both aides' prison terms were finalized by the courts.

The ex-chief of staff's two-year imprisonment was confirmed on Feb. 1 for his involvement in the blacklisting of nearly 10,000 figures in the fields of entertainment, culture and the arts.

The conviction came seven years after he was indicted for his involvement in subjecting artists with politically liberal beliefs to unfair investigations and denying them government subsidies. He was not in custody when the court verdict was finalized. However, Cho Yoon-sun, another former presidential aide and former culture minister who was also handed a two-year prison term for the blacklisting scheme, was not given a special pardon.

The 84-year-old Kim Ki-choon was earlier convicted of pressuring the Federation of Korean Industries business lobby group to aid conservative civic groups in 2014 and 2015, when Park was in power. But Tuesday's pardon will have little practical effect. Kim had finished his one-year prison term when the top court verdict came out in 2020. His criminal record for the matter was erased in last year's round of presidential clemency. The former aide, however, was acquitted in June 2023 of manipulating public documents related to the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.

Former national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin's two-year sentence was also confirmed earlier this month. The 74-year-old, who also previously served as defense minister, was convicted of instructing members of the Defense Ministry's Cyber Operations Command to create over 9,000 political comments online from 2011 to 2013 to sway public opinion, during which time the 2012 presidential election was being held.

The former director of the presidential National Security Office is currently a civil member of the presidential defense innovation committee under the conservative Yoon administration.

South Korean presidential security adviser Kim Kwan-jin speaks during a press conference after meeting with North Korean counterparts at the presidential Blue House on August 25, 2015 in Seoul. (GettyImages)

They were among 980 prisoners to be given clemency, effective Wednesday. Eight former government officials, seven politicians and five business leaders were among them.

Seo Cheon-ho, the former commissioner of Busan Metropolitan Police Agency who was convicted of manipulating public opinion to tarnish the reputation of a labor union, will also be pardoned. Two Army Reserve major generals of the now-defunct Defense Security Command will also be granted a special pardon, after being found guilty of spying on civilians who lost loved ones in the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster.

Vice Justice Minister Sim Woo-jung told reporters Tuesday at the Government Complex Seoul that the decision to pardon former high-ranking officials was reached to help the country "deal with the social conflict and pursue national unity and give the pardoned people a chance to show their devotion to their country."

The Justice Ministry denied speculations that the ministry's external panel to determine who was to be pardoned and those chosen to be pardoned had communicated before the announcement.

The special amnesty was also given to five entrepreneurs, including SK Inc. Senior Vice Chairman Chey Jae-won and LIG Chairman Koo Bon-sang. The clemency would clear them of their criminal records: Chey's embezzlement and Koo's fraud. The Justice Ministry did not disclose the identity of the other three business leaders pardoned.

Both Chey and Koo had employment restrictions due to respective convictions lifted in 2021. Six business lobby groups released a joint statement Tuesday that the clemency will "help prop up the national economy."

As a result, some 6,200 prisoners will have been pardoned on four occasions since Yoon took office in May 2022.

The government also confirmed plans to lift administrative sanctions on over 450,000 citizens, including food service providers, bus drivers, truckers, fishers, public servants and ordinary people who had their driver's licenses revoked, effective Wednesday. Seoul also plans to remove the late payment records of over 2.9 million people, including small business owners, starting in March.

Moreover, the Justice Ministry revealed that 942 prisoners had been released early for good behavior on Jan. 30.