SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s top court handed down a ruling on Thursday that could result in more prison time for Samsung’s de facto leader, who was freed last year after being jailed for bribing the country’s since-impeached president.
The Supreme Court ruled that an appeals court had underestimated the value of the bribes that Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s vice chairman, also known as J.Y. Lee, had provided to former President Park Geun-hye and a friend of Ms. Park’s. Mr. Lee was released from prison in February of last year on the basis of the appeals court’s ruling.
The ruling Thursday could spell trouble for Mr. Lee and Samsung, a pillar of South Korea’s economy and one of the world’s largest technology companies, because it raises the possibility that he will be imprisoned again. The Supreme Court sent Mr. Lee’s case back to a lower court for retrial.
In August 2017, a Seoul district court sentenced Mr. Lee to five years in prison for offering 8.6 billion won, or $7 million, in bribes to Ms. Park and to Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of the president who was central to the bribery scandal that drove Ms. Park from office and led to her imprisonment.
But the appeals court, in finding that the bribes had totaled just 3.6 billion won, reduced Mr. Lee’s prison term to two and a half years and suspended the sentence, setting the stage for the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday.
The appeals court must rule on Mr. Lee’s case again, and it will be required to honor the Supreme Court’s opinion unless it is presented with a compelling new evidence in favor of Mr. Lee.
On Thursday, Samsung expressed deep regret over the episode and vowed to “avoid a recurrence of past mistakes.” Mr. Lee essentially leads the company because its chairman, Mr. Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, is seriously ill.
The decision will cast a further cloud over a business empire that is essential to the South Korean economy. Samsung Electronics, its gadget-manufacturing and chip-making arm, accounts for nearly one-fifth of South Korea’s exports.
The sprawling, family-run conglomerate — known in Korean as a chaebol — runs businesses in hospitality, financial services, industrial products and many other areas.
Samsung Electronics faces challenges on a number of fronts. A slowing global economy and a mature smartphone market have reduced demand for its products and the components that go inside them.
It also faces growing competition from Chinese smartphone brands, which have been improving the quality of their products and expanding into the rest of the world. The company’s operating profit for the three months that ended in June fell by more than half compared with a year earlier.
Samsung also faces uncertainties related to South Korea’s souring relations with Japan, which are rooted in disputes over the two countries’ painful history and are now playing out in a bitter trade conflict.
Samsung relies on Japanese companies for chemicals that are essential to making microchips, and Japanese officials this summer began requiring South Korean companies to jump through more regulatory hoops to purchase them.
Still, it is not clear whether Samsung needs Mr. Lee to navigate its problems.
The company has argued that Mr. Lee sets the long-term direction of the businesses he is involved with, and that his guidance is needed in difficult times. But experts have said that Samsung has a deep bench of experienced executives who can fill in.
While Mr. Lee was first facing trial, Samsung Electronics ably recovered from a scandal in which some of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones were found to be prone to catching fire.
The court’s ruling is the latest aftershock from the corruption scandal that rocked South Korea in 2016 and 2017, consuming Ms. Park’s presidency and leading to her ouster and imprisonment.
The case exposed corrupt ties between powerful South Korean politicians and Samsung, as well as other major conglomerates. Prosecutors said Mr. Lee had bribed Ms. Park and her friend, Ms. Choi, to obtain the government’s support for moves that were meant to tighten his control over the Samsung conglomerate.
At the height of the scandal, hundreds of thousands of people rallied in central Seoul every weekend to demand that Ms. Park be removed from office.
The National Assembly impeached her on charges of bribery and abuse of presidential power in December 2016; the Constitutional Court upheld the lawmakers’ decision in March 2017, making Ms. Park the first South Korean leader to be removed from office through parliamentary impeachment.
Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court sent Ms. Park’s case back to a lower court for retrial, citing a procedural mistake. It said the lower court should have ruled on bribery charges separately from other criminal charges. But key elements of her conviction were upheld, and Ms. Park will remain in prison while awaiting the retrial.
The retrial could increase Ms. Park’s already lengthy prison term. Ms. Choi will also be retried, as the Supreme Court struck down part of the lower-court ruling.
In its ruling on Mr. Lee’s case last year, the appellate court said he had sought favor from Ms. Park by providing 3.6 billion won to finance the training of Ms. Choi’s equestrian daughter. But in its Thursday ruling, the Supreme Court said that other support Samsung provided for the daughter, including three thoroughbred horses that it bought, should also be considered bribes, thus raising the total amount to 8.6 billion won. All the money was embezzled from Samsung, prosecutors say.
The amount of bribery and embezzlement is crucial in Mr. Lee’s case.
If he is convicted of embezzling more than 5 billion won from Samsung for bribery, he could face at least five years in prison. A prison term of more than three years cannot be suspended.
But as a practical matter, sentencing guidelines have not always applied to chaebol chiefs. Judges have often cited potential damage to South Korea’s economy as reasons for reducing or suspending their prison terms. Mr. Lee’s father, Samsung’s chairman, was twice convicted of bribery and other corruption charges but never spent a day in jail, helping to create an image of Samsung as untouchable.
In its statement Thursday, Samsung alluded to its importance to the country, asking for “support and encouragement so we can rise above the challenges and continue to contribute to the broader economy.”
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