Lee is free – and South Korean reform is dead

We’ve been writing about Samsung since September 2016, when we explained the distinctively South Korean type of family-run corporate conglomerate known as the chaebol. “The simple fact,” we noted, “is that pretty much everybody in the South Korean government is on the chaebols’ payrolls – or wants to be. And the growing popular resentment of this grand corruption is an extremely good sign.”

Park Geun-hye

A couple of months later we reported on charges that South Korea’s then President, Park Geun-hye, had helped a friend, Choi Soon-sil, extort huge sums of money from several of the chaebols. The largest chaebol, Samsung, which accounts for some 17% of South Korea’s economy, gave Choi over $15 million. By December 2016, the official probe into this corruption uncovered that the sum extracted from Samsung was closer to $20 million. In return, President Park allowed the merger of two Samsung entities.

Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee)

In January of last year came the news that prosecutors had barred Lee Jae-yong – the de facto head of Samsung, grandson of its founder, Lee Byung-chul, son of its official chairman, Lee Kun-Hee (who stepped down from day-to-day management, but did not relinquish his title, after a 2014 heart attack), and arguably the most powerful man in South Korea – from leaving the country. In February Lee (who in the West goes by the name Jay Y. Lee) was arrested; in March, Park was removed from office.

Her replacement, Moon Jae-in, promised to curb the power of the chaebols, whose domination of the nation’s economy has thwarted new business development, whose cozy ties to government leaders have caused widespread suspicion and resentment, and whose leaders’ ability to escape punishment for large-scale corruption has made them seem to be above the law.

Moon Jae-in

Lee’s trial began in March. Dubbed “the trial of the century” in South Korea, it involved five charges: bribery (maximum possible sentence: five years), embezzlement (eight years) perjury (ten years), concealing criminal proceeds (five years), and hiding assets abroad (life). Prosecutors asked for a sentence of twelve years. In August, after five months of testimony, Lee was found guilty of all five charges and sentenced to five years in prison. He was thereupon “sent to a prison for white collar criminals in Uijeongbu.”

Then, last month, came a startling development. Lee, who had appealed his sentence, was taken from his prison cell and transported to the Seoul High Court. There, presiding senior judge Cheong Hyung-sik informed him that he was to be released immediately and would be on probation for four years.

Lee in handcuffs

Cheong – who, technically speaking, had not reversed or commuted Lee’s sentence but cut it in half and then suspended it – maintained that Lee’s only real offense was to have succumbed understandably to inordinate pressure exerted on him by Park Geun-hye while she was serving as President. “Park threatened Samsung Electronics executives,” claimed the judge. “The defendant provided a bribe, knowing it was bribery…but was unable to refuse.” Not a small number of South Koreans regarded this as a thoroughly absurd argument. 

More on Thursday.

Oases of privilege: the chaebols today

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Samsung headquarters in Seoul

The current South Korean corruption scandal (which we’ve been discussing this week) has blighted the images of the Brobdingnagian conglomerates – among them Samsung and Hyundai – that are known in that country as chaebols. Once admired – even revered – for helping transform South Korea into a respected powerhouse of technological production, the chaebols are now increasingly seen as oases of inherited wealth and privilege whose position of dominance and massive competitive advantage are unfair to start-up entrepreneurs and extremely unhealthful for the economy as a whole. That the chaebols have been shown again and again to be infected by immense levels of corruption at the loftiest levels has only further darkened their public image.

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SK Group headquarters, Seoul

So has the staggering degree of impunity enjoyed by the highest-ranking chaebol executives and their families. As we noted in September, “however criminal or incompetent the head of a chaebol may be, he enjoys invulnerability and unaccountability on a scale unheard of in any other developed democracy.” As one South Korean businessman put it: “At companies in advanced countries, a faulty CEO is replaced. But at South Korean conglomerates, the head of a conglomerate wields absolute authority and is not replaced no matter how grievous his mistakes are.”

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CJ Group headquarters, Seoul

One of the matters being investigated in connection with the current scandal is the charge that President Park Geun-hye, in 2013, ordered her then economics secretary to pressure CJ Group (one of the largest chaebols) to fire its chairwoman, Miky Lee Mie Kyung. Lee, the granddaughter of Samsung founder Lee Byung Chul, had apparently angered Park by producing entertainment programming that was “unfavourable to the government.” In a clandestinely recorded conversation, Cho darkly warned CJ Group executive Sohn Kyung Shik “that there would be consequences if the request was not followed.”

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Choi Tae-won

As we’ve seen, prosecutors have been interrogating some of the top guys at the very biggest chaebols. But prosecutors aren’t the only officials who want to talk to the chaebol honchos: on November 21, the ruling and opposition parties in the South Korean parliament agreed to summon the heads of the seven largest chaebols to testify as witnesses in that body’s own investigation of the scandal. Among them is Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-koo, who nine years ago was pardoned by then president Lee Myung-bak after being found guilty of embezzling $100 million to bribe government officials. Another prospective witness is SK Group chairman Choi Tae-won, who three years ago was pardoned by President Park after being found guilty of embezzling over $40 million. These guys, in short, are old hands at being caught with their hands in the till – and then being set free so they could resume their thievery.

Their testimonies are scheduled for the parliament’s first hearing on the scandal, on December 5; eight days later, Choi Soon-sil herself, the woman at the center of the whole shebang, will be questioned at another parliamentary hearing along with other suspected participants. We’ll be sure to keep our readers updated on developments.