S. Korea divided over imprisonment of Samsung heir

SEOUL-- South Korea's business and political communities on Friday were divided over a local court's ruling to put Lee Jae-yong, the heir-apparent of Samsung Group, behind bars, with some expressing concerns over the potential fallout for the national economy.

Multiple business insiders, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed shock over the Seoul Central District Court's decision to slap Lee with a five-year jail term for bribery, embezzlement and other charges in a massive corruption scandal that led to the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye.

"The court should have considered that (Samsung) did not have criminal intention, but wanted to avoid trouble if it refused the government's request," an official from a local business group said.

Another official from a South Korean conglomerate said it is disappointing that the ruling came at challenging times when the country is facing diplomatic tension with China coupled with Washington's move towards protectionism.

"Samsung Electronics takes up 11.9 percent of South Korea's manufacturing segment, and 30.7 percent of the combined operating profits," another official from a local biz group pointed out. "The prolonged absence of Lee is expected to lead to side-effects."

South Korea's ruling party, on the other hand, cheered the decision.

"The ruling targets the back-scratching alliance of government and businesses," said Rep. Choo Mi-ae, the head of the Democratic Party. "A company must be transparent to receive trust from the global community and beef up competitiveness."

The party chief expressed hope that the case may act as an opportunity for Samsung to become a socially responsible company.

The minor opposition People's Party also said the business community should become more aware that South Korea is no longer tolerant to conglomerates' wrongdoings as seen by the case.

Pro-Park lawmakers from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, meanwhile, declined to deliver a comment on the verdict.

Labor activists also welcomed the court's acknowledgment of Lee's corruption.

"Lee has personally used state authority to facilitate its power succession, resulting in massive losses to the state pension," unionized workers of Samsung Electronics Service said.

Prosecutors earlier sought 12 years against Lee, claiming Samsung's de facto leader offered or pledged 43.3 billion won (US$38 million) to win the state pension's approval for a merger between two affiliates under terms designed to increase his control over the entire business empire. The court ruled that Lee provided 7.2 billion won in bribes.

The union also claimed Lee should have received a jail term beyond 10 years if the court had considered him an ordinary criminal, rather than the head of a conglomerate.

"Lee provided Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil with bribes, which was the money that could have been spent on victims suffering from work-related diseases at Samsung," said Hwang Sang-gi an activist from the Protector of Health and Human Rights of Semiconductor Workers (SHARP). "It is unacceptable that he received only five years."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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