By Gawon Bae and Helen Regan, CNN
The South Korean government has pardoned former President Park Geun-hye, who was serving 22 years in prison for corruption, the country’s Justice Ministry said on Friday.
Park Kyung-mi, a spokesperson for the Blue House — South Korea’s presidential office — said President Moon Jae-in considered former President Park’s worsening health condition when deciding to grant a special pardon.
In 2017, Park became the country’s first democratically-elected leader to be forcibly removed from office after the country’s Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her over allegations of corruption and cronyism.
She was found guilty on multiple counts of abuse of power, bribery and coercion in 2018 and sentenced to 24 years in prison — later reduced to 20 years following a retrial. Those charges related to a massive influence-peddling case that gripped South Korea, prompted widespread protests, upended the country’s politics and implicated some of its most powerful figures.
In January this year, South Korea’s highest court upheld Park’s reduced 20-year prison term. She also faced an additional two-year sentence over a 2018 conviction for meddling in the nomination of candidates for the conservative political party she previously led.
Park, 69, underwent shoulder surgery in 2019 while serving her prison term, according to the Justice Ministry. She had been spotted by local media multiple times going to hospital in a wheelchair.
Speaking through her lawyer following the pardon Friday, Park apologized “to the people for causing so much concern.”
“I will concentrate on getting treated and try to thank the people myself in the earliest time possible,” Park said, as relayed by her lawyer Yoo Yeong-ha, who did not give details of her health condition.
Park has been hospitalized at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul since November 22, the hospital’s communication team confirmed to CNN, but the cause of her stay was not shared due to confidentiality.
Park also thanked President Moon and the government for granting her pardon.
The Blue House spokesperson added Moon hopes Park’s pardon would be an opportunity to start a new era of unity and harmony and asked for understanding from those opposed to the decision.
Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said in a briefing the pardon would be a chance to bring the Korean people together to overcome the national crisis caused by the pandemic and to move on to the future.
Park, who has served about four years and eight months in prison, will be freed on December 31.
South Korea corruption scandal
The daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female President when she came to power in 2013 — but her term was marred by controversy.
The 2017 vote to impeach Park came after millions of South Koreans took to the streets over a period of several months to demand her ouster, following revelations about the undue influence wielded by her adviser and confidant, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader.
Shortly after Park was stripped of her office, she was arrested and put on trial for soliciting bribes from major conglomerates in the country, including Samsung. In 2018, she went on trial over separate accusations that she received illicit funds from the National Intelligence Service.
Several others were also implicated in the scandal. In 2018, Park’s confidant Choi was sentenced to 20 years in jail on 18 charges including abuse of power, coercion, fraud and bribe, and was fined $16.6 million.
In 2017, Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong was found guilty of bribery and other corruption charges and sentenced to five years in prison. Following a retrial, the Seoul High Court sentenced Lee to 2 and a half years behind bars. He was released on parole in August.
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CNN’s Jake Kwon and Julia Hollingsworth contributed reporting.