Lee Jae-yong, also known as Jay Y Lee, alleged to have paid £30m in bribes to presidential crony Choi Soon-sil
The acting head of Samsung, South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, has been arrested in connection with the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that threatens to topple the country’s impeached president, Park Geun-hye.
Special prosecutors investigating a scandal that has rocked South Korea’s political and business worlds accuse Lee Jae-yong of bribing a close friend of Park to secure government support for a business deal that would propel him to the top of the Samsung group.
They reportedly plan to indict him on charges including bribery, embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury, after the Seoul central court approved the billionaire’s arrest.
Lee, also known as Jay Y Lee, is officially vice-president of the Samsung group, but has been the firm’s de facto head since his father, Lee Kun-hee, had a heart attack in 2014.
The 48-year-old spent Thursday night at the Seoul detention centre awaiting the court’s decision on Friday morning.
While prosecutors decide whether to indict Lee, he will be forced to swap his $4m (£3.2m) mansion in Seoul for a 6.65 sq m cell equipped with a mattress, TV and a toilet. He is being held in a single cell and will not be allowed any contact with other prisoners, according to a detention centre official.
Prosecutors have up to 10 days to indict Lee, Samsung’s third-generation leader, although they can seek an extension. After indictment, a court would be required to make its first ruling within three months.
Samsung said it had yet to decide whether to contest Lee’s arrest or seek bail. “We will do our best to ensure that the truth is revealed in future court proceedings,” the company said in a statement.
According to South Korean media, Samsung claimed that Park had pressured it into donating to foundations belonging to Choi Soon-sil, the president’s longtime confidante who faces charges of attempted fraud and abuse of power. But the firm insisted it had not expected any special favours in return.
Lee, whose net worth is estimated at $5.8bn, is the highest-profile figure to have been arrested so far in the Park scandal, which centres on her relationship with Choi.
Park, the daughter of a former South Korean dictator who became the country’s first female president in late 2011, has denied any wrongdoing.
But she conceded she had been “careless” in her relationship with Choi, who reportedly wielded undue influence on economic policy and South Korea’s relations with North Korea.
Prosecutors were last month forced to rebuild their case against Lee after the same court rejected a request to arrest him.
But on Friday, a court spokesman said: “It is acknowledged that it is necessary to arrest (Lee) in light of a newly added criminal charge and new evidence.”
Lee’s arrest is expected to add momentum to the prosecutors’ case against Park and Choi, who is in detention facing charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud. Choi has denied any wrongdoing.
Samsung is accused of paying bribes totalling 43bn won (£30m) to two foundations operated by Choi. The firm – the single biggest donor to the foundations – is also accused of separately giving millions of euros to Choi to fund her daughter’s equestrian training in Germany.
In return, Lee allegedly sought government approval for the controversial $8bn merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015 – a move that would smooth his path to the top of the entire Samsung group.
Samsung said in a statement on Wednesday it had “not paid bribes nor made improper requests to the president seeking favours”.
Park, who was impeached in December after weeks of mass protests, risks becoming the first president since South Korea became a democracy in the late 1980s to be forced from office.
She is now president in name only, her powers having been transferred to the prime minister and now acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn.
South Korea’s constitutional court is expected to rule on the legality of the impeachment vote by June, although some observers expect a decision to come earlier.
If Park’s impeachment is upheld, South Koreans would then have to elect a new president within 60 days, and Park would lose her immunity to criminal indictment.
The current frontrunner to replace Park is Moon Jae-in, a veteran member of the liberal opposition Democratic party who was defeated by Park in the 2011 presidential election.
Kim Kyoung-soo, a spokesman for Moon, said of Lee’s arrest: “We hope it marks a beginning to end our society’s evil practice of cosy ties between government and corporations and move towards a fair country.”
Ramin Sarajari’s comment:
Bribing is something very serious in any form you can imagine but in a country like Korea one may think after such a successful past 30 years in economy, how can this be possible. The recent bribing story has raised some serious questions and how some successful companies or individuals who have high visibility would attempt to do such act.
According to the BBC, the countries below have the most bribing that has become part of the daily life. In my opinion, one must think twice before attempting doing such act.
Population who have paid a bribe
27% world average
- Sierra Leone 84%
- Liberia 75%
- Yemen 74%
- Kenya 70%
- Cameroon 62%
- Libya 62%
- Mozambique 62%
- Zimbabwe 62%
- Uganda 61%