Samsung Group’s de facto chief Lee Jae-yong’s retrial began Friday at a high court, after the top court ordered a review of his bribery sentence in connection with a corruption scandal that led to the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017.
Grim-faced, Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, appeared before the appeals court at 9:29 a.m. to attend the first hearing, 627 days after he was released from prison when an appeals court suspended his sentence.
In August, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Seoul High Court, ordering it to retry the case. It said more of the money Lee had given to entities linked to ex-President Park, who is now behind bars for corruption offenses, and her confidante Choi Soon-sil should be seen as bribes.
In a rare remark to the defendant, the presiding judge asked Lee to set up an effective monitoring system to prevent violations of the law within Samsung Group and fix problems with the family-run company’s management system.
“This case is an embezzlement and bribery crime planned and committed by Samsung Group’s chief and high-ranking officials,” the judge said at the 37-minute hearing, adding that an effective monitoring system could have prevented the 2017 corruption scandal.
Korea’s largest family-run conglomerates, including Samsung Group and Lotte, were involved in the scandal that led to the former president’s impeachment. Korea’s economy largely depends on a handful of family-run companies often criticized for monopolizing wealth and undermining fair market competition.
The judge also asked Lee to feel responsibility regardless of the final ruling.
Lee’s defense team said it respected the top court’s decision and would not fight it but would instead focus on asking for leniency in sentencing. Three witnesses will be called by Lee’s side, according to his lawyers.
“I feel very sorry that I caused concerns to many people,” Lee said before entering the court in southern Seoul, without answering questions about what he expected the final ruling to be or about his plans for the management of Samsung Group.
As he appeared in court, some citizens shouted, “Arrest Lee Jae-yong” or “Samsung has to repent,” while others cheered for him.
A lower court initially sentenced Lee to five years in jail in 2017 for paying 3.6 billion won in bribes to Choi, Park’s longtime friend, in return for favors from the Park administration in the process of succeeding his father and securing control of Samsung Group.
He was released from jail after the Seoul High Court reduced his sentence to 2 1/2 years and suspended it for four years, having thrown out most of the bribery convictions.
The Supreme Court, however, said Lee should also be found guilty of providing an additional 3.4 billion won worth of bribes to Choi, whose daughter received three horses from Samsung. The lower court ruling had excluded the value of the horses when calculating the amount of the bribes Samsung paid Choi.
The top court also defined Samsung’s 1.6 billion won donation to a sports foundation run by Choi’s family as a bribe, calling it a planned move relevant to Lee’s management succession from his hospitalized father, Lee Kun-hee.
Two more hearings for Lee are scheduled for Nov. 22 and Dec. 6.
Park and Choi were sentenced by a lower court to 25 years and 20 years in jail, respectively, for corruption offenses. The top court also sent their cases back to a high court, and Choi’s retrial is set to begin Wednesday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)