SEOUL - The scion of South Korea’s Samsung business empire, Lee Jae-yong, appeared in court Friday to face trial for bribery and other charges.
Lee sat quietly and did not speak as South Korean prosecutors presented a slew of evidence they said showed why and how the 48-year-old used 43 billion won ($38 million) in corporate funds to bribe the country’s impeached president, Park Geun-hye, and a close confidante of hers, mainly in exchange for supporting a smooth leadership transition at Samsung.
The prosecutors focused on Lee’s alleged motivation for seeking government help with a father-to-son leadership transition in the country’s largest business group.
Samsung has denied any wrongdoing and Lee, who was arrested in February, has pleaded not guilty.
De facto Samsung leader
Lee assumed de facto leadership of the conglomerate after his father Lee Kun-hee, who is Samsung Electronics’ chairman, fell sick in May 2014.
Stakes in the trial are high for both sides, since it involves the princeling of South Korea’s richest family.
Prosecutors blamed close ties between the government and big business for the scandal that toppled Park and has implicated dozens of other people at a number of chaebol, or big business conglomerates.
Such relations may have aided South Korea’s rapid economic ascent but now are a source of growing public discontent and a key target of contenders in a May 9 snap presidential election.
For Samsung, a conviction could hurt Lee’s stature as future leader of the company founded by his grandfather.
The prosecutors said their evidence includes 39 handwritten notebooks where a former economic adviser of the impeached South Korean president scribbled down her orders. They argued that the huge sum of corporate money was used for Lee’s personal benefit — to secure a business merger and lobby regulators to help strengthen his control over Samsung.
Lee is “the biggest beneficiary who reaped enormous profits,” said special prosecutor Yang Jae-sik, according to a media pool report. Yang denied Lee’s argument that Samsung was coerced into giving Park and Choi money, saying the victims of the dealings were national pension fund holders, affiliates of Samsung and its shareholders, who suffered losses because of a merger allegedly engineered for Lee’s sake.
Lee faces five charges that could entail at least five years in prison if he is found guilty.
One of his lawyers, Song Woo-chul, presented about 70 slides in a presentation contending that the prosecutors’ argument was unreal and “full of contradictions.”
Song said Samsung was unaware of Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, until after the scandal over their relationship and allegations of influence-peddling surfaced late last year. Samsung did not need Park’s help with the 2015 merger, which was aimed at helping Samsung’s future growth, not aiding the leadership succession, Song contended.