Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak walked out of prison on Wednesday evening on conditional bail, but his successor in the presidential Blue House, fellow conservative Park Geun-hye, remained behind bars, serving a 33-year sentence.

The two have taken radically different approaches to their prison sentences.

Lee, who went from being a poverty-struck market porter to a Hyundai Construction executive and then mayor of Seoul before leading South Korea from 2008-2013, was sentenced to 15 years in jail on October 5, 2019, on corruption charges.

Although Lee protested his innocence, the court found he had amassed slush funds worth millions of dollars and accepted bribes from Samsung in order to free its chairman, Lee Keun-hee, who was briefly jailed for tax evasion.

Lee claimed he was a victim of political vengeance from current President Moon Jae-in – Lee had launched an investigation into the family of the late former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon’s mentor, who subsequently committed suicide.

From jail, and backed by a high-powered legal team, Lee appealed his sentence, for which there is a term limit. As the judiciary was unable to meet the time limit to try his appeal, the Seoul High Court approved a bail request from the 77-year-old.

Lee claimed to be suffering from poor health in prison, including insomnia and diabetes, and was required to post bail of one billion won (US$886,000). TV news showed footage of a dark-suited Lee, accompanied by police officers, leaving prison, then being conveyed to his walled-off home in an upmarket area of southern Seoul in a black salon.

Still, Lee is hardly free. Korean media characterized his bail conditions as “virtual house arrest,” noting that he is not permitted to leave his domicile and can only communicate with family members and lawyers. Although Lee – who was unable to do military service as a youth due to his extremely low bodyweight – looked sleek in news footage, the court also ordered him to exercise for at least one hour every day and to keep a daily log of his activities.

Lee’s release is not unusual, under Korean judicial procedures. “That is what a Korean court usually does,” said former judge Hwang Ju-myung, head of Seoul legal firm HMP Law. “The court justification for granting bail was that it is conditional bail so he cannot contact anyone other than his lawyers or immediate family, so he is in sort of house arrest. But anyway, he can do whatever he can do at his home.”

‘Total resistance mode’

However, Lee’s freedom – limited as it is – does not provide a benchmark for Park Geun-hye, Korea’s first female president, who, after massive protests in 2016, was impeached and removed from office in 2017, then jailed in a widespread corruption and abuse-of-power scandal that implicated her best friend, multiple aides and blue chips including Samsung and LG.

Park, citing unfairness and a political conspiracy against her, fired her legal team, remained silent during her trial and after her sentencing, has not appealed her conviction.

“She will not take part in the legal proceedings, as the whole legal system has completely fallen apart,” said Hanjin Lew, spokesman of the right-wing Korea Patriots Party, which holds only one seat in parliament, but which remains staunchly pro-Park. “If she appealed or asked to be released, that would legitimize the legal system.”

Recently there have been protests by the party and other conservatives demanding her release. Many protesters are senior citizens who believe Park was unfairly treated and fondly remember her late father, President Park Chung-hee.

Under his authoritarian leadership between 1961 and 1979, Korea prospered, transforming from agrarian backwater to heavy industry powerhouse.

Dire fates

“I think the situations are different because this technicality that allows [Lee] to be let out is because a legal process is still underway, while her legal process has finished, so [her case] would require political intervention,” said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans.

Since the foundation of South Korea as a republic in 1948, national presidents – who, some aver, wield too much power and so are impacted not only by personal corruption, but also by that of relatives, friends and aides – have suffered dire fates.

One was exiled, one assassinated and one committed suicide, post-term. One has been sentenced to death, four have been jailed and four have seen family members jailed. However, the death sentence of one ex-president was lifted and two were released from jail by the pardons of subsequent presidents.

This pattern is enabled by a widespread lack of public respect for the institution of the law, Breen maintained. “Someone might get a 10-year jail sentence, but will be pardoned,” he said. “What nobody seems to understand is that this presidential largesse shows that the law is not as respected as political power.”

And even if Moon, who took power following Park’s overthrow, does offer her a pardon, she might not accept.

“I think Moon should pardon her as she has been subjected to a process and a sentence that is totally out of proportion to anything she might have done and I think the whole country knows there will be a pardon,” Breen said. “But that raises an interesting question: There is some speculation that she might refuse a pardon, as that would essentially be an admission of guilt, and I think she is in total resistance mode.”