Credited with building South Korea’s economy from the ashes of war, chaebol owners lived above the law for much of the past half-century. But that immunity appears to be fading as the ethos of economic democratization and the demand for fair justice increasingly take hold.
Four top-level executives at several retail giants, all heirs to the family-owned conglomerates, who refused to show up at parliamentary hearings late last year will face trials, prosecutors announced on Tuesday.
Those to be tried are vice chairman Chung Yong-jin and vice president Chung Yu-kyung of Shinsegae Group; Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of Lotte Group; and Chong Ji-sun, chairman of Hyundai Department Store Co.
They were summoned by lawmakers between October and November last year to parliamentary hearings and audits at the National Assembly, but refused to show up, citing busy schedules.
The hearings and audits were part of the government’s efforts to investigate conglomerates exercising too much power over small retailers and traditional marketplaces in the retail sector.
When they refused to show up, prosecutors asked for summary judgments and sought fines ranging from 4 million to 7 million won ($6,600) as penalty. The case lagged, as it was not unusual for chaebol owners to ignore lawmakers’ summons.
But in a surprise move on Monday, the prosecution ordered them to a formal trial, which would require the corporate owners to actually show up at the courthouse, as opposed to lawyers doing all the paperwork, as summary judgments only require.
The indictment is the latest in the prosecution’s clampdown on chaebol owners. Last month, a lower court sentenced Chey Tae-won, former chairman of SK Group, to four years in prison for embezzling corporate funds for stock investment. He was put in prison immediately after the verdict was made by the Seoul Central District Court.
Experts have noted that the recent series of tough prosecution of corporate owners align with President-elect Park Geun-hye’s policies for economic democratization and market justice.
“The ruling (on Chey) can be seen as (the court) embracing calls from political circles that have been demanding a tougher stance on (crimes committed by) chaebol bosses,” said Song Se-ryeon, a professor of law at Kyunghee University.
Rep. Park Young-sun of the main opposition Democratic United Party also introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow the prosecution to arrest witnesses who refuse parliamentary summons without “justifiable reasons.”
The bill states that if a witness fails to show up or refuse summons to appear at parliamentary hearings or committee meetings, then the host committee can ask the court for a warrant, which would be relayed to the prosecution in carrying out the arrest.
“If a witness summoned by the National Assembly fails to show up without justifiable reasons, then that lowers the effectiveness of parliamentary hearings and the intervening powers of the parliament, thereby violating the people’s right to know,” said Park.
By Samuel Songhoon Lee (email@example.com