SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of—Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was formally convicted of an array of corruption charges and sentenced to 24 years in prison a year after she was driven from office and arrested over a scandal that saw months of massive street rallies calling for her ouster.
The conviction, which she can appeal, is the latest indignity for South Korea’s first female president, who grew up in the presidential palace as the daughter of a former dictator and even served as first lady after her mother’s assassination. The harshness of the sentence is likely to deepen divisions in a country still wrestling with the aftermath of the most serious political turmoil in years.
Once seen as the darling of South Korean conservatives, Park earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her record leading her party to victory in tight races, culminating in her own election as president in 2012. Yet that was all undone by the scandal involving a close confidant and bribery, extortion and other allegations.
Park, 66, maintains she’s a victim of “political revenge” and has been refusing to attend court sessions since October. She didn’t attend Friday’s verdict, citing a sickness that wasn’t specified publicly.
In a nationally televised verdict, the Seoul Central District Court convicted Park of bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other charges.
“It’s inevitable that the defendant should be held strictly responsible for her crimes, if only to prevent the unfortunate event of a president abusing the power granted by the people and throwing state affairs into chaos from happening again,” chief judge Kim Se-yun said.
Kim said Park has shown no remorse for her wrongdoing and continued to pass responsibility to others with “unconvincing excuses.”
Along with the prison sentence, Kim said Park was also fined 18 billion won (US$16.8 million).
Both Park and prosecutors—who had demanded a 30-year sentence—have one week to appeal.
Park’s lawyer, Kang Cheol-gu, called the 24-year prison term “very bad” and said the legal team will decide whether to appeal after confirming her willingness.
The court convicted Park of colluding with longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to pressure 18 business groups to donate a total of 77.4 billion won ($72.3 million) for the launch of two foundations controlled by Choi.
The two women were also convicted of taking bribes from some of those companies, including more than 7 billion won ($6.5 million) alone from Samsung. Prosecutors previously alleged that Samsung’s bribe was aimed at getting government support for a smooth company leadership transition, but the court said there was not enough evidence to prove that Samsung sought such favour from the government.
The court said Park colluded with senior government officials to blacklist artists critical of her government to deny them state assistance programs. Park was also convicted of passing on presidential documents with sensitive information to Choi via one of her presidential aides.
The scandal has already led to the arrests, indictments and convictions of dozens of high-profile government officials and business leaders. Choi is serving a 20-year prison term; Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong was initially sentenced to five years in prison before his sentence was suspended on appeal; and Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin was given 2 1/2 years in prison.
Park has a small group of fierce supporters—most of them middle aged and older—who regularly stage rallies calling for her release and after the verdict was broadcast, thousands of them marched near the Seoul court to protest the ruling. They waved South Korean and U.S. flags and held signs that read, among other things, “Stop murderous political revenge!”
“Release (President Park) immediately!” the marchers chanted as they walked between thick lines of police officers. There were no immediate reports of major clashes or injuries.
The gatherings of Park’s supporters have been much smaller than the earlier ones calling for her ouster, which began in October 2016, eventually drawing millions every Saturday to a Seoul plaza and elsewhere around the country. She was impeached by lawmakers that December and removed from office by a constitutional Court ruling in March 2017.
The protests show how deeply South Koreans are split along ideological and generational lines, the result of decades-long tension with rival North Korea and the lingering fallout from the conservative military dictatorships that ran the country until the late 1980s.
Park is the daughter of deeply divisive dictator Park Chung-hee, who is revered by supporters as a hero who spearheaded South Korea’s rapid economic rise in the 1960-70s. But he’s also remembered for imprisoning and torturing dissidents.
During her father’s 18-year rule, Park Geun-hye served as first lady after her mother was killed in an assassination attempt targeting her father in 1974. She left the presidential mansion in 1979 after her father was gunned down by his own intelligence chief during a late-night drinking party.
After years of seclusion, Park returned to politics by winning a parliamentary seat in the late 1990s, during a burst of nostalgia for her father after South Korea’s economy was devastated by a foreign exchange crisis.
In 2012, she won the presidential election by defeating her liberal rival and current President Moon Jae-in, riding a wave of support by conservatives who wanted to see her repeat her father’s charismatic economic revival.
Park’s friendships with Choi, 61, began in the mid-1970s when Choi’s late father served as Park’s mentor after her mother’s assassination. Park once described Choi as someone who helped her when she had difficulties. But her relations with the Choi family have long haunted her political career.
Media reports say that Choi’s father was a cult leader and allegedly used his ties with Park to take bribes from government officials and businessmen.
Park has previously insisted that she only got help from Choi on public relations and to edit some presidential speeches.
Park’s four years in office were marred by rising animosity with rival North Korea over its advancing nuclear program, a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers on a school trip, and criticism that she curbed free speech and didn’t manage things transparently.
In a presidential byelection triggered by Park’s early exit, Moon won an easy victory against wounded conservatives.
Park’s saga is only the latest addition to a long line of scandals involving the country’s leaders.
Her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who governed from 2008-2013, was arrested and jailed last month over a separate corruption scandal. Lee’s liberal successor Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death in 2009 amid a corruption investigation of his family.
Park Chung-hee’s successors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both ex-army generals, spent time in jail for bribery, treason, munity and other charges after leaving office. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both former opposition leaders who fought against the dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun, left office in disgrace after their sons and close associates were arrested or embroiled in scandals.
Associated Press writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this report.