Lee Jae-yong: Why South Korea just pardoned the Samsung ‘prince’
With reporting by Yuna Ku, BBC Korean Service
Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong – convicted of bribery and embezzlement in 2017 – has been granted a special presidential pardon.
One of South Korea’s most prominent white-collar criminals, Lee has been jailed twice for bribing a former president.
The South Korean government justified the move on the grounds that the de facto leader of the country’s largest corporation needs to return to the top to spur an economic recovery after the pandemic.
It has been six years Large-scale protests swept through Seoul last week, inflicting a new blow to a battle over the country’s run that has escalated since the president was ousted.
Lee’s crimes were directly related to the corruption scandal that led to the imprisonment of former President Park Geun-hye, who she served from 2013 until 2017.
“Prince of Samsun” – as he was called by demonstrators – paid his $8 million (£6.6 million) bribe to President Park and his staff, including his control over the family’s empire Secured shareholder support for the merger.
As it became known, during the winter of 2016-2017, millions of South Koreans took part in candlelight protests every weekend demanding an end to the tangle between the Park administration and politics and business. participated in the protest.
The South Korean parliament impeached Park, who was jailed for 25 years in 2017.
Lee, also known in the West as Jay Y Lee, was accused of embezzling company funds to purchase his $800,000 (£650,000) horse for the daughter of a friend of the president. Imprisoned a year later.
A new president, Moon Jae-in, takes office and is tasked with cleaning up the chaos. But he didn’t get very far. In his last day as president, he pardoned his predecessor.
Now, eight months later, under another new president, Samsung’s bosses are receiving the same amnesty.
For those who have fought corruption, this is a disappointing blow.
“This is a setback. It means South Korea is going back to before the candlelight demonstrations,” said Sang-in Park, a professor of economics and industrial policy at Seoul National University.
Lee’s case confirms the popular notion that business leaders are untouchable and above the law.
In South Korea, mega-conglomerates dominate the economy, with the top 10 companies accounting for about 80% of GDP. Known as zaibatsu, they are family-run empires that offer a variety of services. Among them are LG, Hyundai, Lotte and SK.
But Samsung is the biggest and strongest of them all.
As the world’s largest smartphone maker, it is a global electronics brand. But at home, you can do a lot more: hospitals, hotels, insurance companies, billboards, shipyards, and even theme parks. says YoonKyung Lee, a professor of political sociology at the University of Toronto.
And these tentacles have long made their way into the top political cadres of South Korea. Professor Lee said he participated in the 2016 protests and that most of his anger was directed at President Park’s personal actions. But she said union activists and others struggled to highlight the chaebol’s prodigious influence in government. After the Korean War, chaebol received significant government support. They got cheaper electricity, tax breaks, a “buy Korea” policy, and also helped suppress union movements.
But the resulting monopoly destroyed competition and stifled the labor movement, their practices leading to decades of bribery and corruption.
In many cases, executives were given lighter or suspended sentences, according to Professor Lee. In some cases, the judge said the economy could take a hit if chaebol leaders were neutralized. He was convicted of bribery and fraud in the 1990s. However, he did not serve a single day in prison.
When his son was taken to solitary confinement to serve his five-year sentence in 2017, activists hoped the case would be a turning point.
In and out of jail
However, the celebration was short-lived. Lee’s legal battle has dragged on for years with many twists and turns, as befits the most dramatic Korean series.
The Court of Appeal released him, the High Court ordered a retrial, and he was again found guilty and imprisoned.
He said, however, just a few months after his second sentence, the Moon administration paroled him and served the national interest.
He has since returned as the public face of Samsung, and in May he welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden for a business visit to South Korea.
Lee is still facing criminal charges. He has violated a prison sentence for manipulating the company’s valuation, fraudulent accounting, and Samsung’s business decisions. A pardon means he can fully resume his administrative responsibilities.
This follows the pattern of condemned Zaibatsu leaders being wiped out of the slate.
“In terms of formal authority, we have the Office of the President and the National Assembly. They make the laws,” Professor Lee said.
“But when it comes to political or cultural influence, or how people feel about the importance of the chaebol in Korean society, it all comes down to the conservative political elites and the practical ones with common interests. It depends on the coalition of the industry elite.”
The government’s amnesty for Lee is based on its claim that the economy needs chaebol leaders. However, many economists say this is not supported by hard evidence.
“Amnesties for chaebol rulers have contributed neither to economic growth nor to turn around in the past,” Professor Park said.
Analysts say Samsung is doing very well while Lee is in and out of jail. After years of slowing growth, South Korea must end its reliance on chaebol, reform advocates say.
“Several studies have shown that the ‘trickle-down effect’ is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. All illegal activities by zaibatsu are ‘forgiveable’ if they do their job.” It’s time to move away from the old notion,” says Roh Jeong-hwa. , advocacy group Solidarity Lawyer for Economic Reform.
But the wider South Korean public does not share the disappointment critics felt over Lee’s pardon.A recent poll found 70% supported the pardon.
How can this support be explained?
Experts say the desire to fight corruption and zaibatsu influence remains. But that’s mixed with anxiety and concern about the looming recession, and Samsung’s pride in representing South Korea on the world stage. And Koreans have lived with this myth for decades, so it’s really hard for ordinary people to get out of it,” says Professor Lee. While we’re at it, people want to see tangible signs that we’re moving forward, and Lee’s release is that sign.”
Credit/Source : BBC
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