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Samsung chief’s arrest could add momentum to Park probe

The arrest of Lee Jae-yong, the heir apparent of Samsung Group, would give special prosecutors extra ammunition as they target the central figure of the extensive influence-peddling scandal -- President Park Geun-hye.

The key issue an arrest could help address is proving whether the renowned businessman offered 43 billion won ($36.8 million) in bribes the president’s confidante Choi Soon-sil, in exchange for the president’s assistance in his corporate succession.

Lee arrived at the Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday morning with independent counsel officials to face questioning prior to the court’s issuance of his arrest warrant.

Special prosecutors Monday requested an arrest warrant for Lee on suspicion of offering bribes, embezzling and giving false testimonies during a parliamentary hearing.

Backing up the bribery accusation is circumstantial evidence that Samsung Group, under Lee’s direct order, offered funds worth 7.8 billion won to Choi’s equestrian daughter Chung Yoo-ra and 1.6 billion won to an organization affiliated with Chung.

The conglomerate also donated 20.4 billion won to the K-Sports and Mir foundations effectively run by Choi, allegedly under pressure.

Special prosecutors claimed that the total amount offered or promised to Choi and Chung was worth 43 billion won.

The massive sum, according to investigators, was paid in exchange for Park putting pressure on the National Pension Service to support a merger between the group’s two affiliates -- Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries.

The merger of the two companies increased Lee’s equity ratio in the group, helping his inheritance of control over the company. The NPS was at the time the largest shareholder of Samsung C&T, giving it influence over the deal, which led to hundreds of billions in losses for the public corporation.
Samsung Group`s heir apparent and vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)
Samsung Group`s heir apparent and vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)
The currently suspended president is also suspected of having delivered documents to Lee during their closed-door meetings, asking the Samsung chief to offer support to Choi’s daughter Chung in her equestrian activities and Choi’s niece Jang Si-ho in her sports businesses.

The backscratching relationship between the Samsung chief and Choi seems to be gaining credence, but investigators still have to prove President Park’s involvement. 

“We have secured substantial evidence to prove the complicity between President Park and Choi,” said Lee Kyu-chul, spokesperson for the independent counsel Monday.

“We have proven to a certain extent that the two share common economic interests in various ways.”

Based on this, the bribery allegation involving Lee and Choi may eventually lead back to the incumbent president’s involvement.

Though the final decision on Lee’s alleged wrongdoing is to be made by the court, the issuance of an arrest warrant for the top businessman is deemed a litmus test for the special prosecutors’ achievements so far.

Should the court agree to issue the warrant, it will reduce the grounds for the president to continue shunning the independent counsel investigation.

Park, despite her earlier vows to “respond faithfully to the independent counsel’s investigation,” has so far refused to show up in person, continuously denying all the charges raised against her.

But if Lee’s arrest is approved by the court, it could give the investigators new momentum and could lead to them questioning the president in person. 

“I believe that (the face-to-face questioning of the president) should take place no later than early February,” said spokesperson Lee on Tuesday.

As this was the first time that he mentioned a timeline, speculation mounted that investigators are closing in on Park.

For similar reasons, it is considered plausible that investigators may attempt to raid and search the presidential compound of Cheong Wa Dae within the month, to gain access to official records related to Park’s charges.

Officials had tried to search the Blue House in October last year, but the presidential security team refused to cooperate, citing the need to protect confidential documents on national security.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)
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