SEOUL • Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong has become a criminal suspect in a widening probe into the corruption and influence-peddling scandal engulfing impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye, prosecutors said yesterday.
Mr Lee, the son of Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun Hee and vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, will be questioned as "a suspect", said Mr Lee Kyu Chul, spokesman for the team of special prosecutors investigating the scandal.
The affair centres on Ms Park's confidante Choi Soon Sil, who is accused of using her ties to the President to coerce the country's top companies into "donating" tens of millions of dollars to two non-profit foundations which Choi then used as her personal ATMs.
Samsung was the biggest contributor to the foundations. It is also accused of separately giving millions of euros to Choi to bankroll her daughter's equestrian training in Germany in a bid to curry favour.
Prosecutors have, for months, questioned Mr Lee Jae Yong and other senior Samsung officials. The officials argue that although they were coerced to offer money, they sought no favours in return and thus the payments were not a bribe.
The prosecutors' spokesman said they have "left open the possibility" of formally arresting the Samsung scion later. A Samsung Group spokesman declined to comment on the issue but said the company was closely following the probe.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Samsung bribed Choi in order to win state approval for a controversial merger it sought in 2015.
The merger of two Samsung group units - Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T - was seen as a crucial step towards ensuring a smooth third-generation power transfer to Mr Lee Jae Yong. Many people criticised it, saying it wilfully undervalued Samsung C&T's stock. But the National Pension Service (NPS) - a major Samsung shareholder - voted in favour of the deal and it went through.
Prosecutors have raided multiple Samsung offices as well as the NPS in connection with the scandal. The fund - the world's third largest pension fund - is overseen by the Welfare Ministry.