In a departure from the leniency typically given to South Korean big businesses, prosecutors on Monday requested the arrest of the de facto head of Samsung Electronics, the country's most valuable company, in an influence-peddling scandal that has toppled the country's president.
Lee Jae-yong, the 48-year-old vice chairman at Samsung Electronics, faces allegations of embezzlement, of lying under oath during a parliamentary hearing and of offering a bribe of 43 billion won ($36 million) to a long-time friend of impeached President Park Geun-hye, according to Lee Kyu-chul, a spokesman for a special prosecutors' team investigating the political scandal.
It will surprise many that prosecutors requested the arrest of the man who symbolizes the future of South Korea's most important chaebol, as family-controlled conglomerates are known. Such leaders tend to be treated as vital for the national economy.
Samsung Electronics is South Korea's most successful company and a source of pride for many who equate its huge global success with national prestige. The company has gone through a rough patch in the past half-year, however, after its latest premium smartphone was found to be prone to catching fire.
Prosecutors understood worries that Lee's arrest could hurt the economy, but "we believed that it was even more important to carry out justice," Lee, the spokesman at the special prosecutors' team, told reporters. A Seoul court said it will review the prosecutors' request on Wednesday. The request takes two to three days to review, according to a Seoul court official in charge of arrest warrants who declined to give his name because of office rules.
"The public demand that chaebol, especially Samsung, should not be an exception and that everyone should be equal before laws has become stronger," said Kim Sang-jo, executive director of Solidarity for Economic Reforms, a private watchdog on big businesses. "Prosecutors and judicial institutions cannot ignore the huge pressure from the public."
Samsung allegedly donated funds to various entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, the jailed secretive confidante of the president, including two non-profit foundations and a winter sports centre run by Choi's niece. This allegedly happened while the company was seeking the government's help with a leadership succession within the Samsung group to Lee Jae-yong from his father who has been hospitalized for more than two years.