Last August, Samsung’s de facto leader, Lee Jae-yong, was sentenced to 5 years in prison for his role in a massive bribery scandal that ended with the impeachment of the South Korean president.
But yesterday, in a less-than-shocking twist, his sentence was suspended, and he walked away a free man.
Lee is the latest in a long line of crooked business execs that South Korea has failed to hold accountable — and his early release doesn’t bode well for the country’s global business reputation.
It started with Choi-gate
The scandal Lee was involved in, dubbed “Choi-gate,” unraveled back in late 2016, when Choi Soon-sil, a top advisor to ex-South Korean President Park Geun-hye, was accused of bribing businesses with favors in exchange for donations to a “nonprofit” foundation.
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Lee — then Samsung’s heir apparent — was found guilty of “donating” more than $27m to Choi’s foundation (including a $900k horse and equestrian training for Choi’s daughter) in exchange for a sign-off on a big merger.
Too big for justice
Initially, Lee was handed a 5-year prison sentence — and for once, it seemed South Korea’s corrupt business leaders would finally have to face the music.
But alas, that was wishful thinking: yesterday, an appeals court reduced Lee’s sentence from 5 to 2.5 years, then, to the chagrin of protesters, suspended it altogether.
It’s a common tale in South Korea’s business landscape
South Korea’s economy is highly dependant on a group of family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol” (“wealth clique” in Korean).
The 10 biggest chaebol own more than a quarter of Korea’s business assets; Samsung, the largest smartphone maker in the world, is the crown jewel.
Corruption is rampant in the chaebol world, and over the years, many executives (including Lee’s father) have been tried in the courts for bribery. And, like Lee, the majority of these execs end up with suspended sentences, free to return to their businesses.
Lee will likely return to his post — and Samsung’ll keep on singin’.