Scan­dal hear­ings put South Korean ty­coons in hot seat

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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

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