With economic recovery on the government agenda for the new year, business magnates who have spent more than a year behind bars are longing for state mercy and a return to their former positions.
While politicians and policymakers are involved in a political tug-of-war over the issue, some conglomerates, including SK Group and CJ Group, are expecting that public antipathy against their imprisoned chiefs will cool down. They have claimed that a leadership vacuum has delayed their key management decisions and may have negative effects on the economy.
Among the convicts most likely to be freed are CJ Group chairman Lee Jae-hyun and Taekwang Group chairman Lee Ho-jin, who are both reportedly in intensive care on account of poor health.
CJ chairman Lee Jae-hyun
CJ chairman Lee was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement, breach of conduct and tax evasion in early 2014 but received a suspended sentence due to his chronic renal failure.
The nephew of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee received a kidney from his wife in a transplant last July but is suffering from various side effects. Lee Jae-hyun has reportedly lost more than 10 kilograms and is being taken care of in an aseptic room.
Taekwang head Lee Ho-jin, who was sentenced to 54 months in prison for embezzling 140 billion won ($128 million) from the company’s coffers, is awaiting a liver transplant. The leader of the petrochemical and broadcasting-focused enterprise has been out on bail due to his illness since his second month in prison. He showed up at court in a wheelchair.
Taekwang chairman Lee Ho-jin
“There is a common understanding that these two people are seriously ill, and that they will have to struggle a lot even after they are pardoned,” an industry insider said.
Other businessmen are desperately waiting for parole, which is granted to those who have served more than one-third of their terms and been cited for good behavior.
These include SK Group chairman Chey Tae-won and his younger brother and vice chairman Choi Jae-won, who were both convicted of embezzlement.
SK chairman Chey Tae-won
Chey, who already received a pardon from former President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 for a separate conviction, is serving the 23rd month of a 48-month sentence. His brother Choi has served 19 months out of 42 months.
Choi has had a relatively good reputation in prison, onlookers said.
Koo Bon-sang, former chairman of LIG Nex1, and Koo Bon-yeop, former vice president of LIG E&C, are also eligible for parole.
Politicians and policymakers, including Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan and the ruling Saenuri Party’s floor leader Lee One-koo, have openly urged that they be granted parole, which only requires permission from the justice minister.
Behind their demand is the hope that such mercy would result in an increase in business investments.
The 2009 pardon for Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee is believed to have resulted in Korea’s winning bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, while Hyundai Motor chairman Chung Mong-koo, pardoned in 2008, served as the honorary chairman of the 2012 Yeosu Expo organizing committee.
Liberal civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, however, held a press conference last Monday protesting efforts to pardon or grant parole to business tycoons. “Forgiving someone because he is expected to make money will damage social justice,” the group said.
Economist Woo Seok-hoon pointed out that paroles should also granted to underprivileged people.
“Labor unionists convicted for their collective actions including rallies and strikes against such tycoons should be saved, too,” he said.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com)