SEOUL • South Korean President Park Geun Hye handed down a full pardon to the head of the country's third-largest conglomerate who was serving his second jail term for multimillion-dollar fraud.
SK Group chairman Chey Tae Won's pardon was among 6,500 announced by Ms Park yesterday to mark the 70th anniversary tomorrow of the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.
The inclusion of Chey in the list sparked criticism of the President, who came to power promising to reform South Korea's all-powerful, family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols", whose chief executives have often strayed onto the wrong side of the law.
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Ms Park said her choice had been motivated by a need to "revitalise the economy".
Chaebols dominate the national economy and the freeing of imprisoned top executives to help stimulate growth has been a common theme of presidential amnesties over the years.
It was underlined this time around by Justice Minister Kim Hyun Woong, who told reporters that releasing convicted business leaders gave them "the chance to contribute to the country's economy again".
Aside from Chey, a dozen other businessmen were freed by Ms Park, in what was her second amnesty list since taking office in 2013. The main opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy, denounced Chey's release, saying it "runs counter to the election promise" Ms Park made to get tough with chaebol owners.
The pardon will only "confuse people's ideas about fairness", a party spokesman said.
The pro-business Federation of Korean Industries, on the other hand, welcomed Ms Park's "brave decision", saying it would help unite the business community behind the government's economic policies. Chey, 54, has served 31 months of his 48-month prison sentence for embezzling 46.5 billion won (S$55 million) from two SK Group affiliates and funnelling the funds into personal investments in stock futures and options in 2008.
In 2003, Chey was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion) accounting fraud.
On that occasion, he was released after just seven months and, in 2008, granted a full presidential pardon, wiping his record clean.
An opinion poll by Korea Gallup last month showed 54 per cent of South Koreans were opposed to giving pardons to chaebol leaders.