South Korea’s highest court ordered the retrial of Samsung Electronics Co. vice-chairman Jay Y. Lee over bribery charges, reviving legal uncertainty around the country’s largest company just as it’s navigating global trade turmoil.
The Supreme Court on Thursday voided an earlier decision to suspend Lee’s 2.5-year prison sentence and is sending the case back to the lower court, it said. Lee may end up going to prison again, having previously served a year after getting arrested in February 2017. He was released in 2018 after the Seoul high court halved what had originally been a five-year term and suspended it for four years.
Lee, 51, was the highest-profile business figure to have been embroiled in a graft probe that inflamed resentment toward the country’s well-connected chaebol, rocked domestic politics and helped bring down former president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in 2017. The Samsung executive was accused of directing tens of millions of dollars to entities controlled by a confidante of Park in return for government support of a 2015 merger that cemented his control of the group. The court on Thursday also ordered a retrial for Park, who is already in jail, arguing she should face trial on broader bribery charges.
“It’s highly likely that Jay Y. Lee will get a jail sentence in a retrial as the amount of bribes has extended," Chung Sun-sup, chief executive officer at corporate research firm Chaebul.com, said by phone. “This is the apex of the chaebol reform, a signal that chaebol’s misbehaviour will not be allowed."
Samsung’s new investments and mergers and acquisitions are at risk, said Heo Pil Seok, chief executive officer at Midas International Asset Management Co., adding the lower court may hand down a heavier ruling against Lee. If Lee is again jailed, the setback to Samsung’s business may affect its suppliers as well and disrupt new orders.