South Korea's highest court ordered the retrial of Samsung vice chairman Jay Y Lee over bribery charges, reviving legal uncertainty around the country's largest company just as it's navigating global trade turmoil.
The South Korean supreme court on Thursday voided an earlier decision to suspend Mr Lee's 2½-year prison sentence and is sending the case back to the lower court, it said. Mr Lee may end up going to prison again, having previously served a year after getting arrested in February 2017. He was released in 2018 after the Seoul high court halved what had originally been a five-year term and suspended it for four years.
Mr Lee (51) was the highest-profile business figure to have been embroiled in a bribery investigation that inflamed resentment toward the country’s well-connected chaebol, rocked domestic politics and helped bring down former president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in 2017.
The Samsung executive was accused of directing tens of millions of dollars to entities controlled by a confidante of Ms Park in return for government support of a 2015 merger that cemented his control of the group. The court on Thursday also ordered a retrial for Ms Park, who is already in jail, arguing she should face trial on broader bribery charges.
“It means the possibility of sending Lee back to prison has risen,” Park Ju-gun, president at corporate research firm CEOScore in Seoul, said before the ruling. For Samsung, “not only the governance restructuring but also major business decisions will be stopped”.
Mr Lee, who has led Samsung for most of the time since his father suffered a heart attack in 2014, will now have to deal with a possible months-long retrial at a time when China and the United States are escalating a trade war and Japan is restricting exports of key materials to South Korea. Samsung has also been grappling with falling profits from a memory chip downturn and sluggish smartphone demand.
"Samsung Electronics deeply regrets that this case has created concerns across the society," the company said in a statement. "We will renew our commitment to carrying out the role of a responsible corporate citizen and will avoid a recurrence of past mistakes."
Samsung shares fell as much as 2.5 per cent.