Will Samsung’s Lee be in handcuffs tomorrow?

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Samsung headquarters in Seoul

When we last left our South Korean friends in the Blue House and the chaebol boardrooms, the probe into Samsung’s cash transfers to foundations linked to presidential chum Choi Soon-sil – apparently in exchange for support for a merger between two Samsung subsidiaries – had entered a new phase. Documents had been confiscated at several locations, including the homes of several Samsung executives; the independent counsel had issued an arrest warrant for Choi’s daughter; and Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, who is the firm’s de facto top dog and the son of its founder and chairman, Lee Kung-hee, had been barred from leaving the country.

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Lee Jae-yong

The latest update came on Monday in the Wall Street Journal. The special prosecutors, reported Eun-Young Jeong, Jonathan Cheng, and Timothy W. Martin, were seeking an arrest warrant for Lee on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and perjury. In order to be able to issue the warrant, they need to solicit approval from a South Korean court, which is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow to entertain that request. If approval is granted, Lee – who spent 22 hours last week being interrogated – will be taken into custody while the prosecutors continue to pursue their investigation. Samsung was quick to reply to the prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant, repeating previous denials that it had made contributions in exchange for favors or made any “improper requests related to the merger of Samsung affiliates or the leadership transition.”

Breakfast with Korean Business Leaders President Park Geun-hye clapping at a breakfast meeting with the Korean business leaders traveling with her at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington D.C. on May 8. 2013.05.08.(U.S. Estern Time) Cheong Wa Dae -------------------------------------- ¼öÇà°æÁ¦ÀΰúÀÇ Á¶Âù ¹Ú±ÙÇý ´ëÅë·ÉÀÌ 8ÀÏÇöÁö½Ã°££© ¿ö½ÌÅÏ D.C. ÇØÀ̾ƴ㽺ȣÅÚ¿¡¼­ ¿­¸° ¼öÇà °æÁ¦Àεé°úÀÇ Á¶ÂùÀ» ÇÔ²² ÇÏ°í ÀÖ´Ù. û¿Í´ë
Lee Kun-hee

The Journal noted that if Lee is indeed incarcerated for any length of time, the conglomerate “could face a leadership vacuum while smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co. is also reeling from a massive recall of its Galaxy Note 7 device. It could also put on hold any further attempts to reorganize one of the world’s most complex business empires.” Indeed, it would almost certainly have a significant impact on the South Korean economy, given that Samsung alone, as the Journal pointed out, “accounts for nearly one-third of South Korea’s stock-market value.”

Meanwhile President Park Geun-hye’s fate also lies in the balance. Last month the National Assembly voted to impeach her, and the Constitutional Court is debating whether to unseat her from the office she has held since February 2013. If the evidence proves that Lee is guilty of the charges leveled against him, it is more likely that the same evidence will help convict Park as well.

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Park Geun-hye

It should be underscored that the current Samsung probe is far from the first to target one of the chaebol – the massive, family-run conglomerates that have formed the foundation of the postwar South Korean economy. Over the years, other chaebol executives – including Lee’s father, who reportedly pocketed $8.9 billion in Samsung funds – have been indicted and convicted on corruption charges. But almost all of them have received presidential pardons that kept them out of jail. The history of brazen, high-level corruption at the conglomerates has underscored the special privileges enjoyed by the clans that own and run them as well as the intimate, one-hand-washes-the-other relationship that has long existed between them and the office of the president.

This time, however, the story may take a fresh turn: the #1 man at the nation’s #1 company may end up going down for good, and when he does, he may very well take the president down with him. Stay tuned.

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.

Facing the music in South Korea

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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.

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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.