In the “Republic of Samsung,” it’s (corrupt) business as usual

Lee Jae-young

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.

Park Geung-hye

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.”

A view of the site of the Pyeongchang Olympics

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.

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

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.

Facing the music in South Korea

rhee_syng-man_in_1956
Syngman Rhee in 1956

Corruption scandals involving presidents and top-flight business leaders are to South Korea what coq au vin is to France. Vote-rigging allegations drove Syngman Rhee (president from 1948 to 1960) into exile in Hawaii; after they left office, both Chun Doo-Hwan (1980-88) and Roh Tae-Woo (1988-93) were tried and found guilty of mutiny, treason, and bribe-taking; Kim Young-Sam (1993-98) wasn’t jailed for corruption, but his son was; Roh Moo-Hyun (2003-08) was impeached and later committed suicide amidst bribery allegations. And that’s just a sampling.

Now, as we saw yesterday, it’s President Park Geun-hye’s turn to face the music. Choi Soon-sil, her friend of forty years, has already been taken into custody for a scheme, in which both women were involved, to squeeze money out of the huge – and hugely corrupt – conglomerates called chaebols that are at the heart of the country’s economy and that invariably play a big role in every major South Korean financial scandal.

park
Park Geun-Hye

In July of last year, according to the charges, Park met individually with the heads of the seven largest chaebols and demanded that they fork over millions to two Choi-run institutions, the Mir Foundartion and the K-Sports Foundation. Park refuses to quit over this affair, but national outrage is mounting steadily, and opposition parties are on track to impeach her. Something’s got to give, and soon.

Naturally, the whole ugly mess has also plunged the chaebols – for what feels like the hundredth time – into yet another calamity of their own making. For them, this crisis comes at an inopportune time. They’ve already endured years of weak domestic sales and low export levels. Now, thanks to the current scandal, the possibility of serious legal consequences looms – and something close to chaos reigns. “Normally,” one leading business figure told the Korea Times, “companies have an idea about what their business plans will be like around this time of the year. But as far as I know, many haven’t even begun drawing up plans yet due to increasing uncertainties.”

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo attends the company's opening ceremony for the year in Seoul in this January 2, 2012 file photo. South Korea's smartphones and cars may have won global acceptance, but back home Koreans are increasingly disturbed by the influence the chaebol have over their lives. That very public anxiety is coming at a sensitive time for the conglomerates as they prepare the transtion to a third generation of family owners and face a strong, unwelcome, focus of attention in the run-up to 2012's parliamentary election. Hyundai Motor's Chung Mong-koo was sentenced to a three year jail term in 2007 for fraud which was suspended in exchange for community service and a $1 billion charity donation as he was deemed too important to the economy to be jailed. To match Insight KOREA-CHAEBOL/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files
Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo

One after another, the superstars of South Korean business are being called on the carpet. On the weekend of November 12-13, prosecutors interrogated Chung Mong-koo, chair of Hyundai Motor Group, Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, and Lee Jae-yong, vice chair of Samsung (and next in line to run the whole shop) about their firms’ irregular money transfers to Choi’s foundations. Two days later, as part of a probe of a suspicious payment made by Samsung to a company owned by Choi and her daughter, hard drives and financial records were confiscated in a raid on the offices of Samsung’s advertising unit, Cheil Worldwide. It now appears that Samsung (which makes up a whopping 17% of the South Korean economy) donated a total of over $15 million to Choi’s foundations, in addition to which it reportedly offered no less than $3.1 million to pay for Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. Yes, you read that right: $3.1 million for one person’s equestrian training.

This is, as it happens, precisely the kind of royal extravagance that has turned so many South Koreans against the self-indulgent excesses of their political and corporate elite. More on that tomorrow.