On Friday, Jay Y. Lee, the billionaire leader of Samsung Group was sentenced for five years in jail due to a bribery charge. This sentencing is a watershed in South Korea’s decades-long economic order, which has been constantly dominated by family-run and powerful conglomerates. The trial has been ongoing for six months and the scandal brought down Park Geun-hye, the president at that time. It was ruled by a court that bribes had been paid by Lee in anticipation of favors from the president. Apart from that, the court also found the Samsung head guilty of perjury, embezzlement and hiding assets abroad. The 49-year-old is heir to one of the biggest corporate empires in the world.
Lee had been held from February under charges that he had given bribes to Park for helping him in securing control of a conglomerate that owns the world’s leading chip and smartphone maker, Samsung Electronics. It also has interests ranging from insurance and home appliances to hotels and drugs. Once the sentencing was over, Lee emerged from the courtroom in a dark suit, without a tie, and with a stony face. He also held a document envelope and the justice ministry officials escorted him back to his detention center.
Kim Jin-dong, the Seoul Central District Judge, said that this case is a matter of Samsung’s executives and Lee Jae-yong as they were preparing for his succession and also indulging in bribery. He said that Lee stood to benefit the most from any political favors because he was the heir apparent. Any wrongdoing was denied by Lee and Song Wu-cheol, one of his lawyers said that they would be appealing the decision. Song said that the guilty verdict was completely unacceptable and he was confidence that a higher court would affirm his client’s innocence. It is expected that they would appeal the case to the Supreme Court by next year.
Five years is the longest sentence to be handed out to a business leader in South Korea. It is a huge landmark for the country that has revered family-run chaebols and conglomerates for helping in transforming it into a global economic powerhouse when it had once been a war-ravaged country. However, more recently, these conglomerates have been criticized for stifling startups and small businesses and holding back the economy. After the Korean War (1950-53) Samsung helped the country in rising from poverty and has become the epitome of the cozy and sometimes ties between chaebols and politicians.
Analysts have said that this ruling has become a turning point for chaebols because previously they weren’t afraid of laws and found them to be lenient. Now, this ruling is going to set a precedent for proper enforcement of laws and chaebols will need to be careful. Under the law of South Korea, it is not possible to suspend sentences that are longer than 3 years. Lots of tycoons had been convicted of crimes, including Lee’s father, but they had all received presidential pardons as everyone had been afraid of the impacts on the economy.