TOKYO — Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye was Friday sentenced to 24 years in prison — effectively for the rest of the 66-year-old’s life — after being found guilty of charges including bribery, coercion and abuse of power.
The heavy sentence completed the sensational fall from grace for a political princess who became South Korea’s first female leader, but then went on to become its first president to be impeached when she was ejected from office a year ago.
In a first for South Korea, the sentencing was broadcast live on television — a sign of the intense public interest in the case. But Park, who continues to strongly deny any wrongdoing, has boycotted the court for the last six months and refused to attend Friday’s sentencing.
For many South Koreans, who took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to oust Park, the case starkly illustrated widespread feelings that the system is stacked against them and that only the rich and well-connected can get ahead. That feeling has only grown with the arrest of Park’s predecessor on unrelated corruption charges.
Together, the cases have added new momentum to efforts to revise South Korea’s constitution and dilute the power of the presidency.
In a damning verdict delivered Friday, three judges in the Seoul Central District Court found Park guilty on 16 of the 18 charges leveled against her, including bribery, abuse of power, coercion and leaking government secrets.
The judges found Park guilty of planning an elaborate extortion scheme with her confidante, Choi Soon-sil — allegations that she has strongly denied. Numerous supporters of Park’s gathered outside the court before the sentencing, waving both South Korean and American flags, to protest her prosecution.
“Park, denying all of the charges, did not appear to be remorseful about her wrongdoings,” said Kim Se-yoon, the lead judge in the case. “We must hold her accountable to stop such an unfortunate case involving a president’s abuse of power from dragging the country into turmoil again.”
Judges sentenced Park to 24 years in jail and fined her $17 million.
“The main blame . . . lies with former president Park herself,” Kim said. “She neglected her constitutional responsibilities and shared her power with a private citizen.”
In February, Choi was sentenced to 20 years in prison and also fined $17 million for her role in the scheme.
She was accused of setting up two charitable foundations ostensibly to promote sports, but in fact using them as slush funds for the president and for herself. She and Park were accused of extracting bribes or promises of bribes totaling $70 million from conglomerates including Samsung and from big businesses in return for favorable treatment from Park’s government.
Prosecutors had been asking for a 30-year prison sentence and a fine of about $120 million to be imposed on the former president.
Experts said the harsh sentence was justified.
“The 24-year sentence, which is more than double the usual sentence for a murder charge in our country, may appear heavy on the surface,” said Lee Chang-hyun, a law professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “However, considering that the entire population of South Korea is affected by her crime, this seemingly heavy sentence is actually reasonable.”
After the sentencing, South Korea’s presidential Blue House issued a poetic statement.
“Each person would have had different feelings about former President Park. However, a bleak and dry wind blew across all of us today,” said spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. “This is a heartbreaking incident for one person's life as well as for the country as a whole.”
Park was not present in the court, having refused to attend court hearings since last October. And, unlike the rest of the country, she would not have been able to watch the sentencing on TV in her 108-square-foot cell because she’s only allowed to view pre-recorded programs.
In her solitary cell, Park has been eating apples and yogurt rather than prison food and has been reading popular comic books, including ones about fortune telling and a legendary karate fighter, according to local reports. She has been refusing to meet with anyone except her lawyers.
Friday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in the downfall of a South Korean blue blood.
Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the former military general who seized power in 1963 and served as South Korea’s strongman president for almost two decades.
In 1974, Park’s mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer who was trying to kill her father. At the age of 22, she effectively became first lady. Then, in 1979, Park’s father was shot and killed by his own spy chief.
During this period, she came to rely on a kind of shaman fortune teller who was close to her father. The shaman reportedly began conveying to Park messages from her mother in the afterlife.
When the shaman died in 1994, his daughter took over his role of providing spiritual advice to Park, who was estranged from her siblings. The daughter was Choi Soon-sil.
After Park was elected president of South Korea at the end of 2012, she continued to rely on Choi for guidance on everything from policy prescriptions to wardrobe choices. Choi had no official title and no security clearance, but she saw Park much more frequently than the president’s own staff.
But in 2016, reports of Choi’s influence emerged, leading to revelations that she had been extracting money from big businesses on the president’s behalf.
The most deeply involved was Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate.
Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, was convicted last year of paying bribes totaling $6.4 million to Choi, embezzling corporate money to fund the bribes, then lying about it. He was sentenced to five years in prison but served only six months before being released.
Experts hope that this case will contribute to the end of the corruption that has plagued South Korea.
“I hope that this trial will provide a good opportunity to sever the lingering negative legacy of collusion between political power and big business,” said Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Seoul National University.
While this scandal has been roiling South Korea, another former president has found himself in hot water.
Former conservative president Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor, was arrested last month on a raft of charges including bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power and breach of trust. The 76-year-old, who was president from 2008 to 2013 and made his name as chief executive of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, is now being held in a separate jail from Park.
South Korean presidents have an inglorious record when it comes to corruption and prison time. This is not even the first time two former presidents have been detained simultaneously.
But these cases will help the cause of constitutional reform.
South Korea’s constitution has not been changed since 1987, when it was revised to mandate direct presidential elections. But elected presidents were limited to a single, five-year term to stop the kind of long tenures that Park’s father had enjoyed.
The current government, led by progressive Moon Jae-in, is promoting a revision that would allow a president to serve two four-year terms, as in the United States.
Similar plans have been put forward by previous presidents, but the government’s plan is the subject of political wrangling now. Moon wants a referendum in June, during local elections, but the opposition wants more time and prefers a separate vote later in the year.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.