South Korea: Will President Park’s 25-year sentence hold?

Samsung headquarters in Seoul

On the South Korea corruption front, the news keeps outdoing itself.

As we’ve noted before, the South Korean economy is dominated by a handful of conglomerates known as chaebols, all of them run by powerful and famous families. Over the decades, members of these families have been caught committing massive acts of corruption. They used to get away with it, usually, because the chaebols were viewed as having lifted South Korea up into the ranks of first-world nations and the families that ran them were objects of near-reverence. In recent times, however, South Koreans have increasingly viewed the chaebols as a hindrance to further economic growth, and as a result have been less tolerant of corruption on the part of their celebrated bosses.

Park Geun-hye

On this site we’ve been following the biggest corruption scandal in South Korean history. Over the past couple of years, investigators have been probing interactions between Samsung, the largest of the chaebols, and Park Geun-hye, who was president from February 2013 to March 2017. Those investigators eventually found that a close friend of Park, Choi Soon-sil, had taken a huge sum of money from Samsung in exchange for permission from Park to merge two of Samsung’s subsidiaries.

Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee)

The consequences of these findings have been dramatic. A quick round-up: in February 2017, prosecutors arrested Samsung’s de facto head, Lee Jae-yong, known in the West as Jay Y. Lee. In March 2017, Park was removed from office and replaced with Moon Jae-in, who promised the South Korean people that he would take action to limit the power of the chaebols. Alas, this is the oldst promise in South Korean politics. Presidents are always saying that they’ll rein in the chaebols, and they never do. In the same way, the CEOs of chaebols are always being arrested on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and the like, only to go free after little or no time in jail.

And that’s what happened to Jay Y. Lee. Last August, after a five-month trial on a range of charges, he was found guilty of everything and was sentenced to five years behind bars. This past February, however, without any warning, a judge sprung him from prison, providing an utterly absurd excuse for doing so.

To many South Koreans, this stunning move – this instant unraveling of justice – seemed to spell an end to any hopes of real reform.

Choi Soon-sil

Is there any possibility that South Korean authorities will do anything to suggest that they’re serious about tackling chaebol corruption? Look at the case of former President Park, who’s been in jail since last year. This past April, a lower court sentenced Park to 24 years and $16 million in fines for bribery, extortion, abuse of power, and other charges. In late August, a higher court, noting that she’d taken even more cash from Samsung than previously believed, bumped her sentence up to 25 years and $18 million. On the same day, her friend Choi was given a 20-year sentence. Meanwhile, in two additional trials that concluded in July, Park was sentenced to a total of eight more years in jail for breaking election laws and illegally spending government money.

Will these sentences hold? Or will Park and Choi be dealt the same get-out-of-jail-free card that Jay Y. Lee was handed? Stay tuned. In the weeks to come, we’re going to be giving these high-level hijinks the closer scrutiny they deserve.

Did Park take Samsung cash to push a merger? Looks like it.

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Park Geun-hye

The soap opera in Seoul continues. On Tuesday, in a brief TV address, President Park Geun-hye offered to avoid impeachment by resigning – although not immediately – from office. Opposition legislators, viewing the offer as an attempt to quash the impeachment effort, said no, promising to go ahead with the impeachment vote, which had been planned for today, but which has now been postponed to next Friday. By day before yesterday, however, parliamentarians from Park’s party had switched from supporting impeachment to going along with a deal to let her resign – even though she might not quit until some time in April.

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Choi Sun-sil

Meanwhile prosecutors continue to uncover details of the corruption scandal that set all this drama in motion. As we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, the probe centers on fishy payouts by various family-run conglomerates – known in South Korea as chaebols – to foundations under the control of Park’s close friend Choi Sun-sil. Among these suspicious outlays are multiple contributions by the Samsung Group, the biggest chaebol of all, that added up to a cool $20 million.

What did Samsung get in return for its $20 million? That’s under investigation, too. One focus is on last year’s merger between two companies in the Samsung Group – Samsung C&T, which is involved in construction, trade, apparel, and resorts, and Cheil Industries, which sells textiles, apparel, and chemicals.

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Lee Jae-yong

The merger was a subject of fierce contention. On one side were the top honchos at the Samsung Group, who strongly favored the merger because they considered it necessary to keep the group under strict family control – a chaebol tradition. Lee Jae-yong, Vice Chairman of Samsung Electronics, was especially pro-merger, because he and his family owned 42% of Cheil, and the merger terms were highly favorable to Cheil shareholders.

These insiders were vigorously opposed, however, by various outsider shareholders in Samsung C&T, who believed – with good reason – that the merger wasn’t in their own best interests.

So who cast the deciding votes – the votes that put the merger over the top? South Korea’s National Pension Service, which owned 11% of Samsung C&T. Which raises another question: why did the pension fund vote the way it did?

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Samsung headquarters

Now comes an answer. In a major revelation, a member of the pension fund’s decision-making advisory board has told the Hankyoreh – South Korea’s most respected independent newspaper – the story behind its pro-merger vote. The fund, he said, didn’t vote for the merger because its analysts decided that was the preferred choice for South Korean pensioners. On the contrary, a consulting firm that the fund had hired to advise it on the question had come down firmly against the merger.

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Blue House

Why, then, did the fund give the merger a thumbs-up? According to the official who spoke to the Hankyoreh, it did so in response to direct pressure from two quarters. One was the Minister of Health and Welfare, who phoned the official and urged a pro-merger vote. The other was a friend of the official who called him on behalf of the Blue House itself – South Korea’s White House.

“My friend told me,” the pension official recounted, “that the Blue House’s position was that I should vote in favor of the merger. If the merger was rejected, he said, the transfer of power at the Samsung Group would run into trouble, which might damage a company that is so important to the Korean economy. A few days later, I got another phone call to the same effect, again representing the Blue House’s position.”

As Hankyoreh puts it, there are “deepening suspicions that the Blue House’s actions were made to compensate Samsung for the assistance it was giving to Choi.” No kidding. Let’s see how this develops.

Gangnam steal

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Park Geun-hye

Things are moving fast in South Korea. Early last week we caught up with developments in that country, where a massive scandal is roiling the chaebols (i.e. Samsung, Hyundai, and the other conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the economy) and is threatening to bring down President Park Geun-hye – who stands accused of helping her longtime chum Choi Soon-sil shake the chaebols down to the tune of some $69 million.

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Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Since we ran those pieces, there’s been a major new development. Last Wednesday, prosecutors raided Samsung’s headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul, the offices of the national pension service, and the office of Hong Wan-sun, who until earlier this year was chief investment officer at the pension service. Last year, as Jonathan Cheng and Eun-Young Jeong wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the pension fund “cast a decisive vote in favor of a merger of two Samsung affiliates” – namely, Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T – “that strengthened the grip of vice chairman and third-generation heir Lee Jae-yong on smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co., the crown jewel of the business empire.” The raids were reportedly part of a probe of that merger. One detail overlooked by the Journal, but emphasized by one South Korean news source, was that this was the third raid on Samsung in a month – an indication that prosecutors had “already made significant progress in their investigation.” The same source indicated that this time around the raid focused largely on the office of Choi Ji-sung, Samsung’s Future Strategy czar.

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Lee Jae-yong

As the Journal‘s reporters noted, all this comes at a tough time for Samsung, which alone accounts for 17% of the South Korean economy. The discovery that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone could overheat and explode in a life-threatening conflagration led to two full recalls, cost over $5 billion, and caused the firm enormous embarrassment, leading to what may be long-lasting brand damage.

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Galaxy Note 7

The ultimate impact of this scandal, however, may be even more explosive than the Galaxy Note 7. As Bloomberg News observed in the wake of the Wednesday raids, it’s “raising fresh questions about decades of cozy ties between the nation’s big conglomerates and those in power.” While one president after another (including Park) has promised to limit the chaebols’ influence, each of those presidents has continued to play the same old game, exchanging favors, breaks, perks, etc., for cash on the barrel head. So far, it’s mostly been Park’s reputation that has suffered: once a popular leader, she’s now got an approval rating in the single digits. But as the South Korean public watches the country’s most powerful businessmen being paraded into police interrogation rooms like small-time crooks, and sees prosecutors raiding the offices of the nation’s largest and most prestigious company as if it were a Mafia operation, the chaebols – whose reputations have already been on the skids for years – are bound to lose even more of their luster. 

The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is just beginning to get underway. As the details of chaebol corruption continue to be investigated, uncovered, analyzed, and publicized, we’ll continue to monitor developments.