Scandal hearings put South Korean tycoons in hot seat
South Korea lawmakers yesterday kicked off an unprecedented series of hearings that will see the country’s business elite grilled over a corruption scandal engulfing impeachment-threatened President Park Geun-Hye. The powerful heads of family-run conglomerates, or “chaebols,” such as Samsung and Hyundai will be among those testifying before a parliamentary investigation ahead of an impeachment vote to remove the president on Friday.
The hearings opened on the back of a series of mass anti-Park demonstrations in Seoul that have seen millions of people take to the streets. Park is accused of colluding with her long-time friend, Choi Soon-Sil, to strong-arm giant corporations into “donating” nearly $70 million to two dubious nonprofit foundations. Choi has been indicted for coercion and abuse of power, and is accused of syphoning some of the donated funds for personal use. She denies all criminal charges.
Choi had been summoned for questioning at the televised hearings, but made it clear yesterday she would absent herself, citing health grounds. Lawmakers said she faced jail time for contempt if she failed to appear. Tuesday’s testimony will be devoted to interrogating the corporate tycoons, including Samsung group scion Lee JaeYong, Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-Koo and seven heads of other conglomerates like LG, Lotte, Hanjin and CJ. They are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, but the “Choi-gate” scandal has taken the lid off simmering public resentment over their influence and perceived sense of privilege at a time of slowing economic growth.
According to company sources cited by the largest-circulation newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, many of them have been going through frantic preparations to avoid any public humiliation, holding mock question and answer sessions with aides and memorizing responses to sensitive issues. Some researched subway and bus fares in case they are asked to prove their commontouch credentials, while others sent managers on recces to the national assemblytiming the walk to the hearing room and working out routes to avoid the press, Chosun said.
Chaebol heads are unused to being questioned or held accountable-even to their shareholders. “It is part of the deeprooted, twisted corporate culture in South Korea to treat founding family members as if they are royalty,” said Shim Jung-Taik, an author of several books on Samsung and its corporate culture including a biography of its ailing chairman, Lee Kun-Hee.”None of them would have attended these hearings in normal times. But the public fury shown at recent mass rallies was too much to ignore even for these royals,” Shim said.
Samsung-the South’s largest business group-made the biggest contributions of 20 billion won ($17 million) to Choi’s foundations, followed by Hyundai, SK, LG and Lotte. Prosecutors have raided the headquarters of Samsung and other groups for any evidence that they received policy favors in exchange for their contributions. Samsung is separately accused of funneling millions of euros to Choi to bankroll her daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. As part of the widening probe, prosecutors are also investigating whether Samsung lobbied officials at the state pension fund for their support over a contested merger deal last year. Park has not been summoned for questioning by lawmakers. Yesterday’s session involved several presidential aides who were grilled over some of the more lurid elements uncovered by the case-including the mass purchase by Park’s office of Viagra pills. — AFP
SEOUL: National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-Jin (left) and other presidential aides take an oath during a hearing on South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s corruption scandal at the National Assembly in Seoul. — AFP