South Korea: How Did the Pardon of Park Geun-hye Affect the Election?

South Korea: How Did the Pardon of Park Geun-hye Affect the Election?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

A pre-election survey undermines the oft-cited idea that national unity in South Korea is promoted through pardons of former presidents.

By Timothy S. Rich, Ian Milden, and Miriam Dawson

In December 2021, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in pardoned former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2016 and had been serving a 20-year sentence on corruption charges. Park, once called the “Queen of Elections,” remained in the hospital post-pardon, unable to campaign in Korea’s March elections. Supporters, including some within the conservative People Power Party (PPP), called for Park’s release prior to this month’s presidential election, citing in part her health issues while incarcerated. Others, including families of the Sewol ferry disaster, opposed the pardon. We asked the South Korean public how they view this pardon and analyzed how these views influenced the March 9 presidential election.

President Moon’s pardon of his predecessor is not unprecedented in South Korean politics. Former President Kim Young-sam pardoned both jailed former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo in 1987. These pardons were controversial, but then President Kim Young-sam and President-elect Kim Dae-jung argued that the pardons would promote national reconciliation. The justice ministry under President Moon, citing Park’s deteriorating health, also invoked similar sentiments of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

The Park pardon, however, may exacerbate concerns about corruption and increase voter disenchantment. Moon’s popularity rose in the wake of Park’s corruption scandals, as Moon promised to root out corruption, and had previously ruled out the possibility of pardoning Park. Moon’s change of heart could raise more questions about his own dealings, a suspicion that President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol encouraged, commenting that if elected, he would launch an investigation into the alleged corruption of Moon. Meanwhile, pre-election polls showed Yoon and Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung in a close race, despite corruption allegations against both, in a campaign that may have left many South Korean voters feeling disenchanted.

To gauge public sentiment on the Park pardon, we conducted a survey on February 18-22 of 945 South Koreans via Macromill Embrain. We asked, “Recently, President Moon Jae-in pardoned former President Park Geun-hye. Do you support this decision?”

Overall, a majority supported the pardon (54.6%), although support largely separated on partisan lines. Unsurprisingly, People Power Party supporters overwhelmingly supported the pardon (79.34%). Meanwhile, a majority of Democratic Party supporters opposed the decision (54.28%). Additional analysis finds women and older respondents to be more likely to support the pardon and that, controlling for party identification, political conservatism corresponds with support as well.

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We also looked at whether support for pardons extended to another conservative, former President Lee Myung-bak, currently serving a 17 year prison sentence on corruption charges including embezzlement and taking bribes during his 2008-2013 presidency. (In 2021, Lee Jae-myung opposed a pardon, and Minister of Justice Park Beom-kye suggested that public sentiment may have also influenced the denial, while others argued that President Lee’s lack of remorse precludes consideration of a pardon.) 

To measure public sentiment on a potential Lee pardon, we asked, “Would you support a pardon for former President Lee Myung-bak?” 

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Here we find that over two-thirds of respondents oppose a pardon (68.25%). The partisan divide is even starker, with 88.82% of Democratic Party supporters opposed to a pardon, while 69.11% of PPP supporters approved a pardon. That the PPP and Yoon have not openly discussed pardoning Lee may have been a strategic decision to avoid drawing more attention to corruption and provide campaign ammunition for Lee. As in our first question, women and older respondents were more likely to support pardoning Lee. We also find that those supportive of pardoning Park were far more likely to also support Lee’s pardon (52.71% versus 6.53%)

Last, we wanted to see if support for Park’s pardon increased support for Yoon. Limiting our focus to those who stated who they planned to vote for in the election, we find that only 17.87% of those opposed to the pardon planned to vote for Yoon, compared to 44.57% of respondents supportive of the pardon. Limiting our focus just to the two main candidates, we find Yoon favored by only 26.17% of those opposed to the pardon, compared to 57.93% who were supportive. Furthermore, regression analysis finds that supporting the pardoning of Park corresponded with support for Yoon even after controlling for demographic factors (gender, age, education, income) as well as for party identification and political ideology. Our survey finds similar findings when, instead of focusing on vote choice, we analyze Yoon’s likability on a five-point scale. Overall, our findings suggest that while President Moon may have pardoned Park as a means of appealing to supporters, it may have motivated those sympathetic towards Yoon to commit to turnout. 

Our results seem to undermine the claims of promoting national unity through pardons for former presidents. The opposition of the liberal voters to the pardons may indicate a level of disgust with the corruption and further contribute to the disillusionment that many voters feel towards the government and politicians. This may further the ongoing populist trends and make political outsiders more attractive to voters, as they may be seen as not a part of government corruption. 

The survey also reflects the extent of the partisan divide in South Korean politics, something President Moon has also commented on in the last month. Though partisan divides are not unique to South Korea, the trend shows no signs of letting up, as demonstrated by the recent tiff between President Moon and Yoon over Yoon’s comments on launching a corruption investigation into Moon. South Korean voters may be divided by partisan allegiances, but they seem to be united in their interest in prosecuting corruption in politics, as evidenced by public stances across the political spectrum in support of rooting out corruption.

Whether Park will play a symbolic role in the resurgence of conservative politics in South Korea or be a reminder of the country’s history of political corruption is unclear. If Yoon decides to pardon the ailing Lee Myung-bak, which he had suggested before, it would be popular with his base according to our data. But if he wishes to address the deep divisions in South Korean society, addressing perceptions of endemic corruption would be a start, as would careful consideration of when to use the power to issue pardons.

Ian Milden is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Miriam Dawson is an honors undergraduate researcher with a double major in Chinese and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University. 


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