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Top court orders retrial for former President Park

Nov 29,2019
The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a retrial of former President Park Geun-hye regarding her alleged misappropriation of National Intelligence Service (NIS) funds, asking a lower court to reconsider its acquittal of her bribery charge.

The highest court sent Park’s case back to the Seoul High Court for retrial, raising legal questions about its earlier decision on the former president’s misappropriation case.

Park, impeached and removed from office in March 2017, was indicted in January 2018 on charges of accepting a total of 3.5 billion won ($2.97 million) from the spy agency’s special operations funds throughout her term. She was accused of receiving a series of payments from NIS chiefs Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho from May 2013 until September 2016.

The Seoul Central District Court convicted Park in July 2018 for incurring loss of state funds and sentenced her to six years of imprisonment. The court also ordered a forfeiture of 3.3 billion won, but acquitted her of bribery charges, although the prosecution argued that the money should be seen as the NIS chiefs’ bribes to the president.

In the appeals trial, the Seoul High Court upheld the bribery acquittal in July this year. It also dismissed the charge that she had incurred losses to state funds. Instead, she was convicted of embezzlement. The high court handed down a five-year prison term and forfeiture of 2.7 billion won.

The prosecution appealed the case, and the Supreme Court said Park’s acquittals should be reversed. With the highest court’s ruling, Park will likely face a heavier punishment after a retrial. Of the 3.5 billion won that Park had received, 200 million won, handed over by former NIS Chief Lee Byung-ho in September 2016, must be seen as a bribe, the Supreme Court said. “Around August 2016, Park ordered Lee to stop sending the money, but Lee made a voluntary and active decision and offered it,” the court said. “Park received it without any objection, so she must have known that the money had a different meaning from the past payments.”

“A president has the right to appoint and supervise an NIS chief,” the court said. “When the NIS chief voluntarily gave a large amount of money to the president, it raises a suspicion beyond reasonable doubt about the fairness of the president’s supervision over the NIS chief.”

Whether the misappropriated NIS funds were bribes to Park or not has been a contentious issue. Although the prosecution argued that the payments were NIS chiefs’ bribes to the president, the Seoul Central District Court initially ruled last year that they were not, although the money was wrongfully used for purposes other than national security operations, such as maintenance of the presidential residence and management of her wardrobes. That decision was upheld by the high court and the Supreme Court for the 3.3 billion won of misappropriated funds, except for Lee’s final payment of 200 million won.

The Supreme Court also said Park had incurred losses to state funds by misappropriating the money, dismissing the high court’s decision to use a lesser serious embezzlement charge.

The Supreme Court, therefore, ordered retrials of the three former NIS chiefs. They had received up to 2.5 years of prison terms.

Lower court convictions against three presidential secretaries accused of colluding with Park in the misappropriation scandal were upheld by the Supreme Court.

Park is standing a series of trials. In addition to the NIS fund misappropriation case, she was convicted by the Seoul High Court for interfering in general elections and received a two-year prison term. The sentence was final as no appeal was filed. Her abuse of power convictions, for which she had received 25 years of imprisonment and a 20 billion won fine, is currently being retried at the Seoul High Court.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]