Lee Jae-yong is once again a free man following a surprise ruling on Monday from a Seoul court that suspended a prison sentence for bribery.
Yet, for many in South Korea the Samsung heir’s victory is a setback to President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to curtail the power of the chaebol, the
family-run businesses that have dominated the economy for decades.
Moon won the presidency after promising to put an end to business as usual for the country’s corporate elite. Lee’s sentencing in August 2017 helped convince many Koreans that these sprawling empires were going to be reined in. Now, some fear the court has sent a message that Samsung and the other chaebol are in the clear.
“I guess our nation has yet to step away from old habits of the cozy relationships between business and politics,” said Lim Ji-hyeon, a 22-year-old student. “I feel dumbfounded.”
The combined market value of the listed companies belonging to the
five biggest chaebol accounts for about half of South Korea’s bench mark Kospi index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Lee isn’t the only prominent executive to benefit from leniency in the courthouse: In December, a judge gave Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin a suspended 20-month sentence after a corruption conviction even though prosecutors had asked for 10 years
Moon has struggled to deliver on campaign promises to reform South Korea’s chaebol culture while he’s preoccupied with North Korea’s weapons tests. His approval rating in a Realmeter poll last month was less than
60 percent—high compared to President Donald Trump and other global leaders—but still his worst result since taking office.
“The government has been dilly-dallying over chaebol reform,” said Jun Sung-in, a professor of economics at Hongik University. “It will face more pressure to step up.”
A Seoul court had earlier convicted Samsung’s Lee of bribing a confidante of former President Park Geun-hye in the hope the company would secure government support for a merger that would help his succession. Lee denied any legal wrongdoing and appealed the original sentence. A string of other chaebol executives have also managed to get off with suspended prison sentences despite convictions.