One ex-prez down, several chaebol CEOs to go

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

In recent weeks, we’ve been reporting – with a good degree of skepticism – on claims by the South Korean government that it’s engaged in a serious, vigorous, and comprehensive effort to curb the power of the nation’s largest capitalist monopolies. We’re referring, of course, to the chaebols, those massive, family-run conglomerates (including Samsung, Hyundai, and LG) that have dominated the South Korean economy over the last half century and more – so much so, indeed, that they routinely kill potential competitors in the womb and thus (as has been increasingly recognized and resented) stifle economic growth, discourage entrepreneurship, and squelch innovation.

Jay Y. Lee

Our skepticism on this front has been undergirded by such events as the sudden and unexpected release from prison, earlier this year, of Jay Y. Lee (Lee Jae-yong), the vice chairman and de facto head of Samsung (and arguably his country’s most powerful figure), after serving only a few months of a five-year sentence for corruption.

As if his release weren’t disappointing enough, Lee has since been invited by President Moon Jae-in, who poses as an anti-corruption warrior, to accompany him and a group of other chaebol bosses on a flight to Pyongyang, where they all explored possible business ties with the fanatically totalitarian, slave-labor-dependent Kim regime. Some reform!  

Lee Myung-bak

Well, there’s news from the supposed chaebol wars. No, a chaebol bigwig hasn’t been tossed in the clink. But another nabob has. On October 5, seventy-six-year-old Lee Myung-bak, who was President of South Korea from 2008 to 2013, was jailed for corruption. Arrested on March 22, he had been charged with receiving hefty bribes from Samsung and other firms, embezzling funds from the government treasury that had been appropriated for use by the nation’s intelligence services, and embezzling $21 million from an auto parts company that he owned through his brother. His sentence: fifteen years behind bars plus a $16 million fine.

Park Geun-hye

He’s not the only former president of South Korea who is currently serving time for corruption. His successor, Park Geun-hye, is six months into a thirty-three-year sentence. Two other South Korean presidents, as it happens, have also spent time in the slammer: Chun Doo-hwan, who held the high office from 1980 to 1988, and Roh Tae-woo, who succeeded Chun in 1988-93, were both convicted of bribery and sedition in 1996, and both were pardoned a year later.

Kim Sang-jo

If there is anything resembling reform underway in South Korea today, it may consist in the fact that corrupt presidents are now more likely to serve out their terms instead of being pardoned after a brief period of incarceration. But of course it remains to be seen whether Park and Lee are in the can for the duration or whether, like Chun and Roh, they’ll get sprung after the headlines die down. In the meantime, the self-styled “chaebol sniper,” Fair Trade Commissioner Kim Sang-jo, has yet to prove that he’s prepared to be as tough on current chaebol leaders as on the former presidents – who are, after all, being put away for engaging in illegal shenanigans with those very leaders.

Reforming chaebols? Or sucking up to Kim?

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

When it was announced last year, with big fanfare, that South Korea had finally gotten serious about tackling the outsized power of the chaebols, we were instantly cynical. This was, after all, hardly the first time that the government in Seoul had vowed to put Samsung, Hyundai, and the other family-run conglomerates in their place. But it never happened. Instead, the same old pattern continued: the chaebols kept throwing their weight around, kept paying huge bribes to public officials in exchange for laws, permits, and exemptions favorable to their business activities, and using their near-monopolistic market positions to smother fledgling firms in their cradles. Every now and then the head of a chaebol would get put on trial for corruption, and inevitably the case would either go away or the boss man, after being found guilty, would be given a get-out-of-jail-free card.


The latest case in point was that of Jay Y. Lee (Lee Jae-yong), vice chairman and de facto head of Samsung, who was sentenced to five years in prison last year only to be freed this year. On September 18, President Moon Jae-in, who not so long ago had essentially declared zero tolerance for chaebol corruption, hopped on a place with Lee and other chaebol honchos and flew with them to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of doing business with the Hermit Kingdom, perhaps even building factories in that totalitarian land. Even as their exploratory talks with Kim Jong-un were underway, Moon’s corruption czar, Kim Sang-jo, head of the Fair Trade Commission, was making his informal title of “chaebol sniper” look pathetic.

“With exports of semiconductors one of the few bright spots in an economy that’s showing signs of strain,” noted Livemint, the Indian business news website, on the day Lee & co. jetted northwards, South Korea’s “reliance on its most profitable company is deepening and thus reducing regulatory pressure on Samsung.” Chung Sun-sup, a corporate analyst, confirmed that the South Korean government “needs Samsung now.” Bruce Lee, CEO of Zebra Investment Management, agreed that the nation’s faltering economy “means a halt in chaebol reforms.” And Kwon Young-june, an expert in corporate governance at Kyung Hee University, concurred. “Reforms are dying on the vine,” he said. “The government will find itself more and more in need of conglomerates as long as it is fixated on quick results rather than long-term reforms.”

Indeed, by escorting the chaebol kingpins to Pyongyang, Moon was doing the very opposite of what he had promised: rather than limiting the power of the chaebols, he was doing his best to expand their power. What kind of head of state lowers himself to the role of chaperon, escort, cicerone, sherpa? With this one move, Moon provided the whole world with a vivid illustration of where the power really resides in South Korea. Did he serve them coffee on the plane, too?

But that wasn’t all. Far from curbing chaebol criminality, Moon was taking actions that seemed likely to invite criminality. North Korea, after all, is subject to strict international sanctions that would almost certainly be violated by any significant business arrangement with the chaebols. Lee Seok-ki, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, told the Korea Joongang Daily that “if we only look at the cost side, North Korea has more labor cost effectiveness than any other country on the planet – even Vietnam and China.” Well, yes – making use of slave labor by people who are forced to live on starvation diets tends to bring down wages. Surely, to any decent observer, the very idea of the filthy-rich chaebols maximizing their profits by employing the brutalized subjects of the Kim dynasty is as reprehensible a business proposition as one could imagine – and is also, of course, as far as possible from any concept of reform.

South Korea: tame chaebol reform, or none at all?

 

Moon Jae-in

In South Korea these days, the billion-dollar question is this: is the administration of President Moon Jae-in serious about reforming the systematic corruption that’s been a national institution ever since Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and the other so-called “chaebols” began dominating its economy?

The history of chaebol criminality – which has largely taken the form of bribes to top government officials – goes back to the years following the Korean War. For decades, the South Korean public has increasingly cried out for reform. President Moon, who took office last year after his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office on corruption charges, has called chaebol corruption a “deep-rooted evil.”

But does he mean it? Or are the stiff sentences handed down in August to Moon’s crooked predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and her friend and partner in crime, Choi Soon-sil, a fluke?

Park Geun-hye

Then, of course, there’s the other, depressingly familiar, possibility: will Park and Choi, like their fellow crook, Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee), and a raft of convicted CEO-felons and presidents before him, end up being let out of jail on some technicality that leaves the entire country even more cynical about their judiciary’s dedication to equality before the law?

Kim Sang-jo

Well, so far Park and Choi remain behind bars. And only days after their conviction was affirmed – and their sentences enhanced – by a high court, South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission (FTC) proposed new rules to govern the chaebols. The head of the FTC, Kim Sang-jo, who has acquired the nickname “the chaebol sniper,” has declared his determination to take on the ownership strucures of the two largest chaebols, Samsung and Hyundai.

Bruce Lee of Zebra Management

An abiding problem at these and other conglomerates has been that the families that founded them still rule them like kings, routinely making sweeping managerial decisions while ignoring the input of shareholders. Kim’s stated goal is to diminish the power of those families, whose grip on their conglomerates well exceeds their relative value of their ownership shares in those conglomerates.

How to address that problem? Well, under current regulations, a chaebol must own at least 20% of its listed subsidiaries and 40% of unlisted units. Kim’s new rules would raise those figures to 30% and 50% respectively.

Robyn Mak

That’s not all. Members of a chaebol’s founding family would not be allowed to have more than 15% of the voting rights in a listed affiliate of that chaebol. Other new rules would also limit the power of corporate kingpins to pull off mergers or spin off subsidiaries without shareholder support. They would also clamp down on circular shareholdings and other intra-conglomerate machinations and intensify disclosure requirements.

Yet in the eyes of serious observers, the commission’s proposed changes are too little, too late. “I would give 20 points out of 100, a basic score, to what the Moon government has done for corporate governance reform,” Bruce Lee of Seoul-based Zebra Investment Management told Bloomberg News.

Commentator Robyn Mak called the proposed new regulations “the first rewrite of antitrust rules in nearly four decades,” but added that given the slow growth of South Korea’s economy, the chaebols are in the catbird seat. “That means corporate governance reform probably will wind up weaker than originally anticipated.”

Indeed, modest though Kim’s proposed changes are, “Moon will struggle,” maintained Mak, “to gain political support to enact some of the new ideas.” We’ll keep abreast of developments.

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.

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.

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.

South Korea kicks out Samsung’s pet prez

Park Geun-hye

For the last few months, we’ve been following the growing South Korean corruption scandal that involves the Samsung Corporation, President Park Geun-hye, and the President’s best friend Choi Soon-sil. In a country where corruption scandals involving ties between top political leaders and the powerful chaebol – the immense, family-controlled conglomerates that are the pillars of the nation’s economy – are a frequent occurrence, the present scandal was the biggest ever.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court

On Friday, that scandal came to a climax as the eight justices on the country’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to remove Park Geun-hye from the office of the presidency for committing acts that “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” The court’s move, which followed the suspension of Park’s powers in December when the national legislature voted for impeachment, and which took effect immediately, was without precedent in South Korean political history.

Choi Soon-sil in police custody

The unseating of Park caused joy in some quarters and fury in others. A protest outside the courthouse by supporters of Park turned violent, with two protesters dying in the melee. As for Park, now that she no longer enjoys the immunity from prosecution that comes with being president, she is likely to be tried on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and abuse of power for having extorted millions of dollars from Samsung and other firms in collaboration with her lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil.

Lee Jae-yong

Park’s ouster on Friday followed the arrest, on February 17, of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, and the announcement on February 28 that prosecutors would be indicting Lee “on charges of bribery and four other offenses.” As Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times, “Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, has been tainted by corruption before. But the company has been considered too important to the economy for any of its top leaders to spend time behind bars — until now. The jailing of Mr. Lee, who is facing trial, is another potent sign that the old order is not holding.”

The Constitutional Court’s ruling marked a victory for honest government and above-board business practices. As Choe noted, the constitutional orderliness of the process also demonstrated how how far South Korean democracy has come in the last half-century. Ahn Byong-jin of Seoul’s Kyung Hee University told the Times that “the curtain is finally drawing on the authoritarian political and economic order that has dominated South Korea for decades.”

Park’s supporters clash with police

The verdict may also, alas, turn out to have a serious downside. To quote Choe, Park’s departure “is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition, whose leaders want more engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major confrontation in the region. They say they will re-examine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, which has sounded alarms about the growing American military footprint in Asia.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

In other words, South Korea, which in recent years has been a reliable bulwark of democracy in the region, may end up being led by people who are eager to appease Kim Jong-un and Beijing and to distance themselves from the U.S. and other democratic allies. The election to replace Park must take place within sixty days; in the meantime, an ally of Park’s, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will serve as acting president. According to the Times, the Trump government “is rushing a missile defense system to South Korea so that it can be in place before the election.”

Will Samsung’s Lee be in handcuffs tomorrow?

samsung-headquarters
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.

lee-jae-yong
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.

park2
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.

Digging up Samsung’s dirt

samsung-headquarters
Samsung headquarters

The probe into corruption at Samsung and the Blue House – South Korea’s presidential palace – entered a new stage on Wednesday, with investigators racing to get to the bottom of last year’s shady merger between Samsung C&T and another Samsung affiliate, Cheil Industries.

A quick summary of what we already know: last year, Samsung donated $20 million to two entities, the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation, that are linked to Choi Soon-sil, an intimate of President Park Geun-hye. Samsung also funneled sizable amounts of cash to Choi and her family through a German corporation she controls and even underwrote her teenage daughter’s pricey equestrian activities.

choi_soon_sil_afp640
Choi Soon-sil

Why exactly did they fork over all this dough to Choi & co.? The working theory, in three words: quid pro quo. Try to follow this reaction pathway: Samsung bigwigs are believed to have bribed Choi to lean on her BFF, President Park, to order the National Pension Service – a major Samsung stockholder – to approve of the C&T/Chiel merger. The pension execs, as it happens, did indeed end up voting for the merger, even though their analysts had urged them to give it a thumbs-down.

lee-jae-yong
Lee Jae-yong

In short, the guardians of South Korea’s retirement funds didn’t do what was best for retirees or for fellow C&T and Cheil stockholders (who, recognizing the merger as unfavorable to their interests, fiercely opposed the merger). They did what was best for the powers that be at Samsung, period. Especially Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong.

park-geun-hye-getty-2
President Park Geun-hye

At least that’s where the available evidence – largely acquired during a previous round of prosecutorial raids – seems to point. Now two investigative teams, one of them led by special independent counsel Park Young-soo, are intensifying the probe. On Wednesday, seeking further evidence, Park’s team – which has 70 days (with a 30-day extension if necessary) to complete its work – confiscated documents and hard drives at about ten locations, including the National Pension Service’s asset management office, the headquarters of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the homes of several Samsung executives.

chung
Chung Yoo-rah

That’s not all. The independent counsel has also secured an arrest warrant for Chung Yoo-rah, Choi’s horse-happy daughter, now 19. Since Chung is believed to be in Germany, the counsel has asked German officials to extradite her, has requested her German credit-card and phone records,  and has arranged for the cancellation of her passport. The investigators are even scrutinizing Chung’s high-school record, which turns out to have been faked. (The national educational department has already revoked her diploma.)

Meanwhile Lee – who, since his father, Lee Kung-hee, suffered a heart attack in May 2014, has been Samsung’s de facto top dog, and hence South Korea’s most powerful businessperson – has been barred from leaving the country. Earlier this month, the younger Lee testified at a parliamentary hearing that he didn’t know Choi and that Samsung’s payouts to her and her organizations were not bribes. According to one source, the independent counsel’s main goal is to find out whether or not that’s true.

samsungcar
A car that was reportedly set on fire by an exploding Samsung Galaxy 7 phone

The whole scandal is, of course, a huge blow to Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate and the ultimate symbol of the nation’s postwar economic success. And it’s happening, note well, at a time when Samsung is still smarting from its exploding-phone fiasco.

So start the countdown: seventy days. For our part, we can’t wait to see what Park Young-soo and his colleagues dig up.

Gangnam steal

park-geun-hye-getty-2
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.

samsung-headquarters
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.

lee-jae-yong
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.

samsung-galaxy-note-7
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.