The Seoul High Court on Monday sentenced Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong to 2 1/2 years in prison suspended for four years. In the first trial, Lee was not given a suspended sentence, and was instead given five years in prison on bribery and other charges.
The appellate court’s ruling is quite different from the first trial’s sentencing on Aug. 25. The special counsel’s case for Lee’s “tacit solicitations” to former President Park Geun-hye to help him inherit management rights for the group was rejected as uncorroborated. This ruling was the premise for the not guilty verdicts on Samsung’s contributions to Korea Winter Sports Elite Center, Mir Foundation and the K-Sports Foundation, all controlled by Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil. Only three bribes were acknowledged: A total of 3.6 billion won ($3.29 million) paid to Core Sports International GmbH for its running costs, a horse and a car.
The appellate court’s decision has been seen as the result of its emphasis on hard evidence. “Lack of evidence” has appeared many times in its sentencing. The court did not accept the circumstantial evidence pointing to illegal solicitations and said it found little hard evidence. This reflects the court’s intention not to accept a case that relies on reasonable suspicions as grounds for incrimination, and instead recognize the reasonable doubt inherent in that argument as grounds for rejection. The first trial sentencing faced criticisms that basing a guilty verdict on tacit solicitations, not on explicit ones, could weaken the principle of evidence-based ruling.
The court identified Park and Choi as the culprits of the corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment. Choi had Park at her beck and call and used this influence to support her and her equestrian daughter’s interests. It was reasonable of the court to rule that Park “threatened” Samsung and other businesses to make contributions to entities controlled by Choi.
This view reflects well the reality of Korea that businesses cannot but follow what the government asks. Few businesses would have dared refuse the president’s demands. But the special counsel ignored this and tried to frame Samsung as an accomplice of bribery.
The special counsel argued the case was “a paragon of cozy relations between government and businesses,” but the high court ruled it could not find typical relations of that kind in the Samsung case. If the special counsel deliberately set out to make it look like there were cozy ties between government and businesses, then that is not investigation but an attempt to politicize the case.
However, just because the appellate court ruled that Park threatened Samsung did not mean that Lee did nothing wrong. The court noted he should have refused unfair demands for support for Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training, even if it was difficult to do so. But this ruling seems to be far from realistic at least in Korea.
Civic groups and political parties showed mixed reactions to the appellate court’s ruling. Liberal groups condemned the court for its leniency toward Samsung’s wrongs, while conservatives hailed the ruling as reasonable and impartial. On social networks, some netizens doxxed the high court judge in question. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea fumed, “Almighty is the dollar. There is still a deep-rooted abuse at work in the judiciary.” But the opposition Liberty Korea Party commented, “the judiciary is not dead but alive.”
Opinions in high-profile cases naturally tend to be split, but such radical responses are undesirable. It is proper and reasonable to respect the ruling and, if the case goes to the top court -- both sides of the case have vowed to appeal -- wait for the final say of the Supreme Court.
For Samsung, the appellate court’s sentence is a relief. Had the lower court ruling been upheld, its management void could have lasted until early 2022. Lee was released 353 days after he had been detained on Feb. 17, last year.
Lee said as he was released from the detention center, “The past year was a precious time for me to look back on myself. I will be more careful.” The court did not acquit him but stayed the execution of his sentence. He should heed the ruling and not forget the lessons he says he has learned from his trial.