By Sanho Kim.
It has been a few months since Korean politics fell into turmoil. Starting from President Park and her alleged abuse of power, the shocking revelations and exposures of corruption have stacked up. Uproars and massive protests — literally thousands of people flocked to the streets of almost all major cities in Korea — have created headlines all over the world, and Park’s approval rate has plummeted.
However, this nationwide storm, which has stricken major political forces and enraged most South Koreans, is far from over: it is still growing. For one, there remains the impeachment process, on which special prosecutors are working. There is the next election (scheduled to be held at the end of this year), which is already being largely influenced by current scandals. Then there is the “Blacklist” issue, in which the government is being investigated over whether or not it has been keeping an eye on certain artists and public figures. From Korean cabinet members to the president’s confidantes and their relatives, the list of suspects seems to extend endlessly.
Nonetheless, the ever-expanding scandal has shocked the world once again: Lee Jae-Yong (Jay Y. Lee), the vice chairman of Samsung and son of chairman Lee Kun-hee, has been accused of bribery.
The Story: What happened
It began with Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye’s confidante, who is known mostly as the major culprit. Choi is being suspected of having had an illegitimate influence over the president and her powers, exploiting the government for her personal reasons. Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra plays a significant role too — it has been revealed by the Department of Education that the abuse of power contributed to Chung’s grades, college work, and even equestrian career.
The alleged story is that Lee Jae-Yong took part in this corrupt process, donating money for Chung Yoo-ra’s training and career. As NDTV summarized, it is being said that Samsung Electronics was one of the firms that sent a large sum of money to back Chung. Lee Jae-Yong, the vice-chairman and the de facto head of the company, has been accused of approving such transactions and asking for political support in return.
The South Korean special prosecutors, who are playing a major role in the hunt and investigation of the corrupt, have supported these accusations. Lee Jae-Yong was put under thorough examinations, though the vice-chairman maintained his denial against the charges. However, ultimately, the arrest warrant requested by the prosecutors was turned down by Judge Cho. On his explanatory statement, the judge pointed to the absence of investigation on the recipient (of the bribe) and lack of possible motive as reasons for the rejection.
When the controversial news of the dismissal spread, it was met with divided responses, as the lengthy, incendiary side of the scandal began to show.
태블릿 PC를 조작해서라도 이재용을 집어쳐 넣어서 대통령을 뇌물죄로 엮으려는 특검. 나쁜 놈들입니다. 막아야 합니다.—
Yun hee sung (@yunheesung) January 14, 2017
Translation: These special prosecutors would go as far as manipulating the computers to arrest Lee Jae-Yong. They are wrong and must be stopped.
One response was that the warrant was not needed in the first place, and that sensational media and rabble-rousing had incited the rage against the rich businessman. Similar to the reasons stated by Judge Cho, the argument against the warrant is that arrest is unnecessary. Instead, it blames the special prosecutors and the crowd. The claims are that people have given way to inciting news and a general, emotional hatred of chaebols (magnates and their privileged relatives), thus ignoring logic and law.
On the other hand, many people have voiced opinions against the rejection, expressing anger at the judge’s decision. Politician Pyo Chang Won, in an interview, described the circumstances as “tragic”, accusing the judiciary of being unfairly in favor of Lee. Others have questioned the judge himself, supporting their argument with their opinion that Judge Cho’s past cases were also “unjust and corrupt”. There has even been a petition asking for the judge’s removal from his post, and countless rumors spread on the web of his being associated with Samsung — though, these were denied.
Meanwhile, many Korean news sources, including Business Post, have been speculating about a possible re-request of the warrant being prepared by the special prosecutors. There hasn’t been any confirmation of these conjectures yet.
The Future: The Consequences for Korea
This issue has impacted the nation both internally and externally, due to both the gravity of the accusations and the involvement of a major, well-known global corporation.
One of the major impacts is the South Koreans’ attitude toward the chaebols and the upper class. With major groups and corporations such as Samsung and Lotte dominating its economy and market, the owners and their relatives have come to occupy the top seats in the Korean society. These chaebols have for long been notorious for their abuse of power and privilege: in one case, the daughter of a magnate forced a public airplane to return to the airport, solely because her peanuts weren’t served in the right way. While Lee Jae-Yong’s guilt is unconfirmed, this scandal has brought the chaebols back in spotlight.
Then there is the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye, which has not yet been concluded. While Lee’s going free does not mean that Park will be cleared of charges, it does have an indirect and considerable influence on the process. If Lee was arrested and then called guilty, a powerful argument would have been built against the president. Following the rejection of the warrant, both prosecutors and anti-Park protestors have expressed concern over the impeachment.
Lastly, there remains the publicity of Samsung Electronics. Widely known and influential as a major competitor of Apple, the corporation is one of the largest players in South Korea’s economy. However, with Lee Jae-Yong, its vice chairman, under suspicion, it has been enduring much decline and hardship. The following instability and bad publicity, added to its crisis in 2016 involving sudden smartphone explosions, may prove devastating to the company. The New York Times stated, “the charges were leveled at a tough time for the company”, while it being “a firm tied to South Korea’s success.” It is, therefore, a concern to Koreans that Lee’s possible downfall might have a negative impact on Samsung, and consequently, their economy.