Samsung's Lee Jae-yong returned to jail

Darnell Taylor
January 20, 2021

Billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong is heading back to prison after a South Korean court sentenced him to two and a half years over his involvement in a 2016 corruption scandal that spurred massive street protests and ousted South Korea's then-president.

Everything began back in 2017, when Lee offered KRW 30 billion (about $27.6 million) to Choi Seo-won, an associate to the former President of South Korea, to help a merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries, allowing Lee to succeed his father and take control of Samsung Electronics, a company founded by his grandfather.

When Lee's case first reached the Supreme Court in 2019, the court returned it to the Seoul High Court for retrial, saying that it had underestimated the amount of bribes Lee paid to Park and her secretive confident, Choi Soon-sil, while Park was in power.

The de facto chief of South Korea's Samsung business empire was convicted Monday over a huge corruption scandal and jailed for two and a half years, in a ruling that deprives the tech giant of its top decision-maker.

On the prison term of less than three years, which was far lower than the nine years sought by prosecutors, the court said it took into consideration Lee's situation where he might have found it very hard to reject demands for bribes from the president. Lee will have to attend hearings in that case from jail.

Experts say the sentence could create a leadership vacuum and hamper Samsung's decision-making on future large-scale investments.

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Industry observers said Lee's absence is likely to delay or stop Samsung's key business decisions, such as merger and acquisition (M&A) deals, as foreign rivals prepare for new opportunities in the post-pandemic era. Lee was freed immediately after that ruling.

He has effectively been at the head of the multi-faceted Samsung group for several years after his father was left bedridden by a heart attack, finally dying in October.

That's right, the new verdict saw deliberations where "Lee, 52, was accused of offering horses and other payments to a friend of the former president to win support for his formal succession at the corporation", and has actually already been upheld by the Supreme Court, so some prison time for Lee seems inevitable now.

With Lee returning to prison, the year he already served in detention is expected to count toward the sentence - leaving 18 months of his sentence to be served.

One Lee lawyer, Lee In-Jae, described the ruling as "regrettable".

After serving one year, Lee was released from prison in 2018 when an appeals court halved and suspended the jail term. Separate from the presidential bribery trial, Lee was indicted in September 2020 on charges of violating the country's capital market laws.

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