On August 28, the South Korean Supreme Court, in a highly anticipated ruling, partially overturned the decision of the Seoul High Court in the bribery prosecution of Samsung Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong, and remanded the case for retrial. The ruling means that Lee, who initially received a five-year prison sentence before having it modified to a two and a half-year suspended sentence, could face an even longer prison sentence after retrial.
Lee’s 2017 trial and conviction stemmed from a request that then-South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye had made of Lee to help the daughter of Park’s longstanding confidante of Choi Soon-Sil. As the daughter was reportedly a competitive equestrian, Park, with funds that prosecutors said he embezzled from Samsung, gave her three horses worth an estimated $3 million and paid her fees at a dressage school in Germany.
Lee’s original conviction was based on his offering a total of $7 million in bribes to Park and Choi during Park’s tenure as President because he “sought government support to solidify his control over the company.” On appeal, the Seoul High Court overturned some of Lee’s convictions and reduced the amount of Lee’s bribery to $3 million, which led to its reducing and suspending his sentence.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, however, stated that the High Court’s ruling “was based on the premise that the horses defendants gave to Choi Seo-won [the daughter] were not to be considered bribes, misinterpreting the principle of law regarding bribery and mistakenly affecting the ruling.” Consequently, the Supreme Court concluded that the High Court had undervalued the amount of Lee’s bribes.
South Korean sentencing guidelines indicate that if Lee, on retrial, is found to have embezzled more than $4 million of corporate funds, he would receive a sentence between four and seven years’ imprisonment. Under South Korean law, a court may not suspend a sentence of longer than three years.
Note: This decision has more than passing significance in South Korea, for two reasons. First, the prospect that Lee could face resentencing and imprisonment is a cause for concern in the country’s business community, given the extent to which Samsung is deeply entrenched in the country’s economy and Lee’s role as de facto chief executive at Samsung. Second, the Supreme Court’s decision establishes that South Korean bribery law applies not only to monetary bribes but to non-monetary things of value, such as the million-dollar horses.