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One law for the rich? Light terms for S.Korean tycoons

Lee Jae-Yong (R) is far from being the only South Korean business tycoon to face a hefty jail term/AFP

SEOUL, South Korea, Aug 7 – South Korean prosecutors on Monday demanded a 12-year prison term for the heir to the Samsung empire, who is on trial for corruption in connection with the scandal that brought down the country’s last president.

Lee Jae-Yong is far from being the only South Korean business tycoon to face a hefty jail term.

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 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.

Here are a few examples of prominent court cases involving the country’s rich and powerful.


Lee Kun-Hee, chairman of Samsung Group and Lee Jae-Yong’s father, was embroiled in a huge corruption scandal in 2007 and accused of managing a slush fund, bribing politicians and making illegal attempts to smooth out the power succession for his son.

Prosecutors initially demanded a seven-year jail term for Lee senior, who was convicted of tax evasion in 2008 and given a three-year suspended prison sentence and a 110 billion won (now $98 million) fine. He was pardoned the following year by business-friendly then-president Lee Myung-Bak.

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In 2007, prosecutors sought a six-year jail term for Chung Mong-Koo, chairman of Hyundai Motors, for embezzlement and bribery.

Chung was found guilty of siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars into a slush fund to bribe government officials and was given a three-year jail term, which was later suspended on appeal. The tycoon received a full presidential pardon from then-president Lee Myung-Bak in 2008.


Prosecutors demanded six years in prison for Chey Tae-Won chairman of chipmaker and telecom service provider SK Group, for embezzling nearly 50 billion won in 2013. Chey was sentenced to four years and spent about two years in jail, one of the longest sentences served by a South Korean chaebol leader. He was eventually released in 2015 along with thousands of others on a controversial presidential pardon by now ousted Park Geun-Hye to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.


Construction to hotels group Hanwha’s chairman Kim Seung-Youn was given four years behind bars and a 5.1 billion won fine in 2012 after he was convicted of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. 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. But Kim served only a few months in prison before the sentence was reduced to a suspended jail term.


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