Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak will be pardoned after serving almost four years of a 17-year sentence for corruption, embezzlement and bribery, the country’s justice ministry has said.
President Yoon Suk-yeol said on Tuesday that the special pardon had been issued for Lee, 81, in the name of promoting national unity, though many South Koreans remain opposed to the move. Lee will be among more than 1,300 people to be pardoned on Wednesday.
Lee led the country from 2008 to 2013 after serving as mayor of Seoul and working as a prominent executive in Hyundai Group’s construction arm. He was the country’s first president from a business background and the fourth former leader to be imprisoned since the transition to democracy in 1987.
Lee was convicted of seven charges in 2018, including bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement, and fined $11mn in addition to an initial sentence of 15 years in prison. He was accused of receiving $10mn in bribes from an array of politicians, institutions and companies, including Samsung, South Korea’s biggest conglomerate.
His imprisonment was temporarily suspended in June at his request due to his deteriorating health condition. His successor Park Geun-hye, who was imprisoned for a corruption scandal that led to her impeachment in 2017, was pardoned in late 2021 by Yoon’s liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in.
Lee was once a symbol of the rags-to-riches story in South Korea. He headed Hyundai Engineering and Construction in the 1960s and won popularity as mayor of Seoul for the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream across the capital’s downtown area.
But his five-year presidency was marred by protests and tensions with North Korea over his hawkish stance against his country’s communist northern neighbour.
Numerous South Korean presidents have faced investigations for corruption, cronyism and graft after leaving office. But every convicted former leader, including generals, has been granted a pardon after serving some time in prison.
Lee’s reprieve has been widely expected. Many of Yoon’s aides previously worked for Lee, though the current president, who is a former chief prosecutor, rose to national prominence on his successful prosecution of Park and Lee.
Yoon, who took office in May, has also taken a hard line against North Korea, which has been more actively building up its weapons programme. On Monday, Pyongyang flew five unmanned aerial vehicles into its southern neighbour’s airspace for about five hours, including over Seoul and other cities.
South Korea responded by dispatching its own drones into North Korea for the first time, but its military was forced to apologise on Tuesday for failing to bring down any of the foreign vehicles. The aerial intrusion has raised concerns about Seoul’s air defences amid the threat of Pyongyang’s growing missile capabilities.
Yoon on Tuesday vowed to strengthen South Korea’s anti-drone strike capabilities and announced the creation of a military unit specialising in drones.