Lee spent a year behind bars for providing billions of won in bribes to ex-President Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil. He was freed on a suspended sentence in February last year, after the appeals court concluded there was insufficient evidence to show the money was bribes, aimed at securing Cheong Wa Dae’s support for Lee taking over the top position at Samsung.
However, the Supreme Court overturned the decision Aug. 29 and ordered the appeals court to review the case. In its ruling, it said 3.4 billion won ($2.8 million) that Samsung used to buy three race horses for Choi’s daughter could be considered a bribe. It also said the lower court was wrong not to view the money Samsung gave to the equestrian activities and sports foundations that Choi controlled as bribes. The appeals court at the time said there was no “explicitly detailed agreement” between the parties regarding “traded favors.”
The Supreme Court ruling opens the possibility of the Samsung heir being put behind bars again. Unless there is new evidence in Lee’s favor, the new appeal judges reviewing Lee’s case at Seoul High Court must adopt the Supreme Court’s stance and interpretation of the given facts in reaching its verdict.
A suspended sentence is unlikely because the extra bribes recognized by the Supreme Court raise the sum from 3.6 billion to 8.6 billion won. By law, those who pay a bribe of 5 billion won or more must be jailed for at least five years.
Judge Jung Joon-young of Seoul High Court will hold the first hearing on Lee and four other Samsung executives Friday morning. Lee’s lawyers will likely argue the money given by Samsung was the result of extortion by President Park and her allies rather than a willing contribution in return for favors.
Lee has been de-facto head of the global smartphone and chip manufacturer since his father, Samsung group Chairman Lee Kun-hee, fell ill in 2014. To help the junior Lee inherit management control, shady bookkeeping and controversial mergers took place between subsidiaries to shake up the shareholding structure within the group. Samsung accounts for a fifth of the country’s exports.
President Park and Choi’s cases, are also being reviewed over procedural faults in lower court rulings.
In a separate bribery case also involving ex-President Park last week, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision to hand a suspended sentence to Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, identifying him as a “passive actor” somewhat pressured into the arrangement by Park.?
The recent rulings sum up the political upheaval the country has been going through since the mass candlelit protests of fall 2016. The widespread condemnation of collusion and the influence-peddling scandal between Cheong Wa Dae and chaebol ousted conservative leader Park and ushered in a government that vowed to rein in the powerful conglomerates.