Samsung chief jailed for five years on corruption charges
Former President Park adviser Choi jailed in June
It all started with a tablet computer.
A scandal which has re-shaped South Korean politics and rocked the country’s elite – overshadowing even North Korean missile threats – began when reporters at CNN affiliate JTBC found a computer belonging to Choi Soon-sil late last year.
On it they found evidence that Choi, a close friend and unofficial adviser of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye, had been receiving secret documents and intervening in state affairs.
On Friday, the resulting scandal claimed its latest scalp, as a court jailed Lee Jae-yong, the heir to mega-conglomerate Samsung, for five years on bribery and corruption charges.
Park’s relationship with Choi and her father Choi Tae-min has long been controversial in Korea.
The elder Choi first became close with Park following the death of her mother at the hands of a North Korean assassin in 1974, while Park’s father, dictator Park Chung-hee, was president.
Choi founded the Eternal Life Church, declared himself a modern day Buddha and called for all people to strive for eternal life.
A confidential 2007 US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks, referenced rumors that Choi had “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
After her father died in 1994 at age 82, Choi Soon-sil succeeded him as church leader and spiritual mentor to Park, as the former first daughter became a political force of her own.
“The family had an extraordinary influence over Park Geun-hye for essentially her entire adult life,” David Kang, a Korea expert at the University of Southern California, told CNN last year.
Though she never held an official position, revelations showed that Choi Soon-sil was given advance access to presidential speeches and other documents.
In June, a Seoul court sentenced Choi to three years in prison for obstruction of duty by using her influence to solicit academic favors for her daughter from Ewha Womans University. Two university officials were also sentenced to between 18 and 24 months in prison.
As Choi’s star came crashing down, so did that of her sponsor, South Korea’s first female president.
Hundreds of thousands of people braved the brutally cold the Korean winter to protest on Seoul’s streets to demand Park’s ouster.
After months of attempting to stave off the scandal with vague televised apologies in which she expressed regret for “causing public concern,” Park was impeached by the country’s parliament in December by a vote of 234 to 56.
Two months later, prosecutors opened a case into the accusations against Park – who has denied the charges, including corruption, coercion and leaking confidential information. A decision on that case is not expected until October.
Park’s Saenuri political party split in the wake of her downfall, and the country’s conservatives were ousted as liberal reformer Moon Jae-in was swept into office in a snap election in May.
Corruption was the number one issue for South Korean voters going into the election, with many pointing to the perceived close ties between members of the country’s political elite and the chaebols – the massive conglomerates like Samsung and Lotte Group that dominate South Korea’s economy.
The scandal that brought down Park and Choi soon swept up both those companies, with top executives from both ending up in the dock. Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin was indicted on bribery charges in April, while Samsung’s Lee was sentenced to five years prison.
During the trial, prosecutors presented Lee as a savvy tycoon who knew exactly what he was doing when Samsung paid tens of millions of dollars to entities linked to a confidante of Park. Lee denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers have said they’ll appeal the verdict.
Previous attempts to crack down on chaebol corruption have been undermined by soft sentencing and political pardons, but during the campaign President Moon promised to crack down on the practice, highlighting the “need to establish the fairness of the law” for all Koreans.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks, KJ Kwon, Taehoon Lee and Sherisse Pham contributed reporting.