Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong joins chaebol shame list with bribery conviction

Citizens watch the television's coverage of the sentencing hearing for Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae Yong at a station in Seoul, South Korea, 25 August 2017. Lee was handed a five-year jail term after being convicted of bribery and other
Citizens watch the television's coverage of the sentencing hearing for Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae Yong at a station in Seoul, South Korea, 25 August 2017. Lee was handed a five-year jail term after being convicted of bribery and other charges. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL - The conviction of Lee Jae Yong, heir apparent at Samsung, has seen the 49-year-old join a lengthy list of executives from South Korea’s chaebols, to run afoul of the law.

It is a list that includes his father, along with men behind conglomerates including Hyundai, SK and Hanwha.

The country’s powerful, family-run business empires – called chaebols – have close political connections, and a long history of their top figures being charged with bribery, embezzlement, or tax evasion, among other offences.

But even if convicted, many see their sentences significantly reduced on appeal or suspended, leaving only a few actually spending significant time behind bars.

Some have received presidential pardons in recognition of their “contribution to the national economy”. Such outcomes have driven increasing public frustration with cosy and corrupt ties between regulators and businesses in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

While in the past convicted executives were often pardoned, the new administration of President Moon Jae In was swept into power on pledges to reshape the country to benefit individual Koreans. That includes higher taxes and regulation of the chaebols that dominate the nation’s corporate landscape.

Here are some notable chaebol cases:


Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun Hee was convicted for tax evasion in 2008 and bribery in 1996. PHOTO: KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Mr Lee Kun Hee, Samsung Group chairman and Lee’s father, was convicted twice. In 2008, it was for tax evasion and he was given a suspended three-year prison sentence before later being pardoned by former president Lee Myung Bak. That followed a 1996 conviction for bribing ex-president Roh Tae Woo that resulted in a two-year suspended prison sentence and subsequent pardon.


Chung Mong-koo, chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, was given a suspended three-year prison term after promising to make a donation to charity of 1 trillion won. PHOTO: EPA

Mr Chung Mong Koo, Hyundai Motor Group chairman, was convicted of embezzlement and breach of duty in 2007. He was given a suspended three-year prison term after promising to make a donation to charity of 1 trillion won, which was worth US$1 billion at the time. Mr Chung was also pardoned by then-President Lee.


SK Group chairman Chey Tae Won was sentenced to prison twice. PHOTO: EPA

Mr Chey Tae Won, chipmaker and telecom service provider SK Group chairman, was jailed twice. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2013 for embezzling corporate funds but was eventually released in 2015 along with thousands of others on a controversial presidential pardon by former president Park Geun Hye to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea. Back in 2003, he was sentenced to three years in jail before he was pardoned in 2008.


CJ Group chairman Lee Jay Hyun was convicted in 2014 of embezzlement, breach of fiduciary duty and tax evasion. PHOTO: EPA

Mr Lee Jay Hyun, CJ Group chairman, was convicted in 2014 of embezzlement, breach of fiduciary duty and tax evasion before eventually being sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail. Mr Lee, who is Lee Jae Yong’s cousin, was in and out of jail during that period because of complications stemming from a kidney transplant in 2013. Park pardoned him in August 2016.


Hanwha Group chairman Kim Seung Youn (left) was convicted of embezzlement in 2012. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Kim Seung Youn, Hanwha Group chairman, was convicted of embezzlement in 2012, for which he was sentenced to four years’ jail and fined 5.1 billion won (S$6.16 million). It was a lighter sentence than the nine-year jail term sought by prosecutors but the decision was hailed as one that broke the pattern of light punishment for convicted chaebol leaders. However, Mr Kim served only a few months behind bars before the sentence was reduced to a suspended jail term. He also received a pardon for his assault conviction from ex-president Lee in 2008.

Sources: BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE