Mar. 14 brought the promise of mild catharsis for many South Koreans, as former president Lee Myung-bak finally turned up at Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to face questioning about corruption allegations.
Lee, who led South Korea from 2008 to 2013, was the subject of widespread corruption rumors even before his presidency began. But he was left alone by prosecutors under his successor and fellow conservative, Park Geun-hye.
Since the progressive administration of Moon Jae-in came to power in May 2017, however, prosecutors have suddenly found it in them to investigate Lee.
So what does he stand accused of? About 18 things, but the two main suspicions are that he received bribes totaling more than 11 billion won ($10.3 million); and that he embezzled 30 billion won (US$28.2 million) of illicit funds via DAS, a car part manufacturing business owned officially by Lee’s brother but widely suspected to belong to Lee himself.
Several of Lee’s aides have already been arrested, and the home of his elder brother searched as the investigation worked its way up toward Lee himself.
Though the ex-president has yet to be charged with any offense, his arrival at the prosecutors’ office and customary short appearance before a scrum of reporters before entering the building — a perp walk-esque ritual and masterclass in non-apologetic apologies — was already a sign that he is in serious trouble and no longer beyond the reach of the law.
What would Lee say? everyone wondered. Would he apologize? If so, to whom and for what? No one expected him to blurt out a confession, but still.
“It feels terrible to stand here today,” Lee began after getting out of his car and walking the short distance to the photo line shortly before 9:30 a.m. “Above all, I apologize for causing you anxiety at a time when the economy is doing badly and the security situation around the Korean Peninsula is serious.”
Here, Lee was using what has been described as a classic conservative move: portraying the opposition as fiddling a frivolous political tune while the economy and national security burn. Never mind that prosecutors are in charge of prosecuting criminals, not safeguarding the economy and national security. Never mind the widely accepted fact that corruption undermines the economy anyway, so that prosecutors’ efforts to root it out are actually doing the economy a favor.
“I also apologize sincerely to all those who have supported me and those who are in difficulty because of this,” Lee went on. Fair enough, but he still wasn’t taking any responsibility for the trouble he was in.
“As a former president, of course, there are a lot of things I would like to say, but I have made my own decision to be sparing with my words.” Now Lee was approaching Trumpian levels of incoherence. He was just about to be questioned by prosecutors: Why was this the time to fall silent? To avoid incriminating himself? Did he even know what he was saying or why he was saying it?
Lee’s sparse hairstyle remained as solidly sculpted as ever. What had he sprayed on it?
Now he was into the final straight.
“The one thing I hope is that this affair will be the last one in history,” he declared, using somewhat unusual phrasing. “I apologize once again to you, the people.”
Was Lee saying that he is in fact guilty? Or that he is only the latest victim of a longstanding political tradition — one that seems to almost require prosecuting recently retired presidents?
If the latter, then this last pronouncement certainly fit in with his previous implications that he was being made a martyr, the victim of an anachronistic political vendetta by ideological opponents.
(And Lee knows a thing or two about vendettas: When he was in office, the National Intelligence Service drew up a blacklist of well-known cultural figures suspected of having leftist leanings, and prosecutors built a criminal case — rightly or not — against Lee’s predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide.)
Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if Lee’s self-portrayal as a martyr and victim of political revenge stands up to the mounting body of evidence against him.
Cover image: Lee Myung-bak bows his head while addressing the press outside Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. (Source: JTBC News via YouTube)