Korea’s Ex-President Lee, One-Time Hyundai Chairman, Back In Jail In Scandal Involving Samsung

Lee Myung-bak, as former chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, centerpiece of the Hyundai empire, ran for president of South Korea in 2007 on the promise to reform the economy. Now, he’s back in jail for the second time in a corruption scandal that caught up with him after his five-year term ended in 2013.

An appeals court in Seoul added two years to the 15-year sentence that Lee had already received and ordered that he return to prison after he had been freed on bail for 350 days. The court also imposed a fine of nearly $11 million for accepting bribes from the Samsung group in return for granting a full pardon to Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who had received a suspended sentence for evading taxes and transferring funds from his companies.

Lee was also ordered to forfeit another $4.6 million from the funds that he had received from a car parts company that was ostensibly owned by his brother but actually belonged to Lee himself.

Lee’s return to jail means that both the conservative presidents who served for nearly a decade before the election of the liberal Moon Jae-in in a snap election nearly three years ago are behind bars. Moon’s immediate predecessor, Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, the figure often credited with fostering Korea’s rise as an industrial giant, also remains in jail on a 25-year term meted out for having abused her power in another scandal also involving Samsung.

That case erupted amid claims that two Samsung entities, Samsung C&T and Jeil Industries, had merged in order to aid the succession of Lee Kun-hee’s son, Lee Jae-yong as leader of the Samsung empire. J.Y. Lee, de facto Samsung leader while his father remains in a coma after a heart attack, was convicted of bribery and embezzlement and in jail for a year before the court suspended his sentence two years ago.

The imprisonment of the two conservatives who ruled before the Candlelight Revolution that brought about Park Geun-hye’s impeachment adds fuel to the fire of rightists who say Moon’s leftist policies have undermined the economy. Moon has encouraged small and medium-sized companies to compete with the powerful chaebol, or conglomerates, like Samsung Electronics, that dominate the economy, but his critics say economic conditions are faltering amid stagnation and youth unemployment.

Lee Myung-bak himself, until his arrest after his presidency, led a brilliant career beginning with his rapid rise through the ranks to the post of chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, Korea’s biggest builder. He was the right-hand man of the late Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung until diving into the maelstrom of Korean politics and running for the National Assembly.

As president, Lee encouraged close relations with American, while adopting a tough policy toward North Korea. That was contrary to the policies of his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon served as chief of staff. Moon’s critics say he is again risking South Korea’s security by pursuing reconciliation with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Lee as a campus firebrand at Korea University had been jailed once before–for leading an angry protest against Korea forming diplomatic relations with its one-time colonial overlord, Japan.


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