For many people in South Korea, the arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment last year of Lee Jae-young – that country’s richest man and the de facto head of Samsung, the country’s largest business – signaled the start of a bright new era. After decades of corruption in the chaebols, the powerful family-run conglomerates that have dominated the postwar South Korean economy, the ouster last year of President Park Geun-hye and her replacement by Moon Jae-in, who promised that the traditionally well-connected leaders of these firms would no longer operate with impunity, seemed indeed to represent radical and long hoped-for change.
Yet, as we discussed on Tuesday, all hopes for revolutionary reform were crushed last month when a High Court judge abruptly ordered Lee (known in the West as Jay Y. Lee) freed from prison.
Lee, according to Bloomberg News, “appeared stunned.” So, reported the Wall Street Journal, were “some South Korean lawmakers and legal experts.” The South Korean public was stunned, too. And angry. Street protests ensued. Moon had promised change, but this was business as usual. Over the decades, one chaebol honcho after another had been tried on corruption charges only to be found not guilty, or convicted and then pardoned, or – as happened with Lee’s father in 2008 – given a suspended sentence. Meanwhile, as the New York Times has noted, South Korean courts have “routinely sentenced lesser-known white-collar criminals to far longer terms for lesser offenses.”
Here it was all over again. “The ‘Republic of Samsung’ lives on,” griped Professor Kwon Young-june of Kyung Hee University. The judge’s decision, complained Park Yong-jin, a member of the National Assembly, only “confirmed once again that Samsung is above the law and the court.”
Indeed. The High Court’s ruling – which came only days before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea – is absurd on its face. Among the items of evidence that senior judge Cheong Hyung-sik chose to drop down the memory hole was a set of 39 handwritten notebooks in which an economic adviser to President Park recorded specifics about bribes paid to Park by Lee. Other exhibits in the trial included documentation of exchanges between Park to Lee that made clear the nature of the quid-pro-quo between them.
Many commentators had been arguing that South Korea is in the process of changing its stripes; nobody can seriously make that argument now. Lee is a criminal for whom prosecutors sought a sentence of 12 years in prison: that’s how serious they considered his transgressions to be. The prosecutors demonstrated that Lee had committed embezzlement, illegally hidden assets overseas, and lied to the parliament under oath. They proved definitively that he had paid bribes in return for government support for a merger that, as the Financial Times put it, “was crucial for Mr. Lee to cement his hold on the organisation, but was widely criticised for not benefiting shareholders.” As one politician observed, by way of underscoring the absurdity of the High Court’s ruling, Judge Cheong appeared to expect the world to believe that Lee had handed over a fortune to President Park in return for absolutely nothing whatsoever.
So it stands, then. For a brief shining moment there, it looked as though South Korea had experienced a new birth of justice and equal treatment under the law. Alas, Lee’s release shows that under Moon, the old rules remain in place.