(News Focus) Top business leaders to be grilled over possible bribery in parliamentary probe
By Byun Duk-kun
SEOUL, Dec. 5 (Yonhap) -- The heads of South Korea's eight prominent business groups will be gathered this week in a parliamentary hearing over a corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her long-time confidante.
The hearing itself will mark a rare, if not unprecedented, occasion where the top business leaders will be grilled in a day-long session that will air live nationally.
It will also mark a rare occasion where the top business leaders will be asked to testify against an incumbent president, as well as her aides and personal friends.
The parliamentary probe was launched late last month after the ruling and opposition parties formed a special committee to look into the scandal, in which President Park and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil are suspected of extorting nearly 80 billion won (US$68.1 million) from leading conglomerates for the establishment of two sports foundations -- Mir and K-Sport.
Choi and her own cronies are now believed to have pocketed or sought to pocket a large part of the fund.
What initially seemed to have been a petty crime, considering the status and possible involvement of the president was what eventually triggered the ongoing political move to oust her as it led to various other suspicions, one of which even suggests Choi was a behind-the-scenes figure with complete control over Park.
The special parliamentary committee apparently hopes to verify such allegations through the testimonies of the eight business leaders, who are widely expected to claim their 80 billion won donations had been made by coercion.
The business leaders, however, may quickly be put on the defensive stance as the probe, demanded by millions of protesters now calling for the president's resignation, will also try to verify whether they had provided the money in exchange for favors, in which case they can be viewed as willing collaborators in a bribery case, possibly leading to prosecution.
For instance, Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. and son of now bedridden chairman of Samsung Electronics Lee Kun-hee, is suspected of ordering his company to chip in a large sum of money for the two sports foundations in exchange for an approving vote for the merger of then two Samsung Group subsidiaries -- Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries -- from the National Pension Service.
The favorable vote from the national pension fund operator, then a major stake holder in both firms, helped pave the way for the merger, especially amid strong opposition from U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management, which in turn helped solidify Lee's status as the group's heir-apparent.
In this photo, taken on Dec. 1, 2016, a group of civic activists announce a plan to file a damage suit against the state-run pension program and Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong over an alleged corruption case, in which the National Pension Service allegedly helped Samsung merge two of its subsidiaries in an attempt to solidify Lee's control over Samsung Group. (Yonhap)
Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin will also be questioned over a possible deal with the president, if not her friend Choi, for one of four new business licenses to operate duty-free shops in Seoul.
Lotte Group is especially suspected of being aware of the illegitimacy of its donations as it had donated an additional 7 billion won to K-Sport foundation following a meeting between Shin and President Park, but then had the money returned ahead of a prosecution investigation, indicating a possible leak of information about the probe.
Many believe such information may have leaked from the presidential office itself, suggesting Cheong Wa Dae too may have been aware of the illegitimacy of what it continues to call goodwill donations.
SK Group is under suspicion for providing over 10 billion won in donations in exchange for a presidential pardon of its imprisoned chairman Chey Tae-won.
Chey was released under a presidential pardon in August 2015, after serving 31 months out of his 48-month sentence for embezzling and misappropriating tens of billions of won in company funds.
Other business leaders to be summoned Tuesday for the special parliamentary probe are LG Group chairman Koo Bon-moo, Hyundai Motor Group chairman Chung Mong-koo, CJ Group chairman Sohn Kyung-shik, Hanhwa Group chairman Kim Seung-youn and Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang-ho.
The file photo, taken on July 24, 2015, shows South Korean President Park Geun-hye (R) leaving the venue of a luncheon with top business leaders at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. The president is said to have separately met at least seven business leaders, including Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang-ho (first row, second from L) and Hyundai Motor Group chairman Chung Mong-koo (front row, fifth from L), to personally ask for donations for two sports organizations set up and controlled by her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil. (Yonhap)
Over the weekend, the businesses and their leaders are said to have spent hours preparing for parliamentary questioning as one wrong turn or slip of the tongue may lead to their prosecution.
Still, the businesses fear some of their aged leaders may not withstand what will likely be a grueling test, both physically and mentally. Hyundai Motor Group is said to be planning to station an ambulance for its 77-year-old chairman Chung at the National Assembly,
The businesses also fear a possible loss of future business opportunities.
"The United States, for example, prohibits the participation of any firm prosecuted for corruption charges in any country in its government projects under the foreign corrupt practices act," a market observer said, while speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Should any of the business leaders be portrayed as a collaborator in corruption at tomorrow's hearing that will also mean a loss of business for their companies."