This photo taken on August 25, 2017, shows ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arriving at a court in Seoul. She was subsequently convicted on corruption charges and jailed. Photo: AFP / Kim Hong-Ji

The highest-profile legal battle in South Korean history was reignited with a vengeance on Thursday after the Supreme Court sent three defendants – at-large Samsung leader Lee Jae-yong, jailed ex-president Park Geun-hye and jailed Park crony Choi Soon-shil – back to a lower court for retrials.

The Supreme Court declined to pass judgment on appeals in the three cases, which date to 2017 and 2018, bouncing them back to the Seoul High Court, meaning the shadow of prison once more hangs over Lee’s head.

In a blow to Samsung, the court said bribery charges overturned in Lee’s 2018 appeal should be reconsidered, and ordered a retrial in the related Park and Choi cases.

The timing of the retrials is unknown, but new evidence will be permitted from both prosecution and defense.

Lee, the third-generation head of Korea’s flagship conglomerate, will remain free, while Park and Choi will remain behind bars unless and until verdicts are reached in the upcoming trials.

Samsung chief in crosshairs

Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, in a nationally televised ruling, ruled that three dressage horses worth nearly US$3 million that Samsung gave to Choi for the use of her equestrian daughter can be considered bribes, as can a donation to a foundation run by Choi, in order to allegedly enable a controversial merger that solidified Lee’s control over the Samsung empire.

Those charges had earlier been overturned in a 2018 appeal, enabling Lee to walk out of jail.

Related Samsung stocks took a hit. Samsung Electronics was down 1.7%, while Samsung C&T, which was central to Lee’s bribery case, ended the day down 4.3%.

“In this increasingly uncertain and difficult economic environment, we ask for support and encouragement so we can rise above the challenges and continue to contribute to the broader economy,” Samsung said in a statement sent to reporters.

The conglomerate is facing massive uncertainties in the face of Tokyo’s July decision to restrict exports of key semiconductor chemicals to South Korea. Lee, though his title is vice-chairman, has been the de facto leader of Samsung since his father, second-generation chairman Lee Keun-hee, was hospitalized after a stroke in 2014.

The senior Lee is not expected to recover.

Will Park attend retrial?

Today’s Supreme Court decision was a result of three separate appeals. Lee had appealed to have his conviction entirely overturned, Choi appealed to have her sentence reduced and prosecutors appealed to increase Park’s sentence.

It is common for South Korea’s Supreme Court to return decisions to lower courts – this happens in about 90% of cases, estimated Hwang Ju-myung, the lead partner in Seoul law firm HMP Law. Until a judgment is made in the retrial, previous sentences “are still valid, so Lee won’t go back to jail and Park won’t come out of jail,” Hwang told Asia Times.

One retrial no-show may be ex-president Park. Citing a conspiracy against her in her earlier trials, Park fired her legal defense team and refused to defend herself: she now only maintains one attorney as counsel.

Though a retrial with new evidence and arguments submitted offer her a glimmer of hope, it is also likely that prosecutors could add further charges, adding to an already weighty compounded sentence of 33 years. A spokesperson for the minority party that supports her, the Korean Patriots Party, was combative.

“President Park is innocent and we do not recognize today’s verdict – this is a political verdict!” Hanjin Lew, the spokesperson for the minority pro-Park Korea Patriots Party, told Asia Times. “There is no reason to fight, as this would recognize some of the basis [for her conviction].”

According to Lew, Park is unlikely to mount a defense in her retrial, indicating it could be held in absentia.

A president overthrown

The three defendants were central players in a spiraling scandal in which Lee is alleged to have been the key briber, while Choi, a close friend of then-President Park, was the intermediary.

The affair started when news broke in late 2016 that Choi, a childhood friend of Park’s, was writing speeches for her and serving as her advisor, despite holding no official position. It was soon discovered that Choi was also running two “national” foundations, Mir and K-Sports.

Public indignation mutated into virtual hysteria as some believed that Choi, whose late father had led a religious cult, had an occult hold over the reclusive Park.

The scandal snowballed when it was alleged that major corporations made donations to Choi’s foundations, but that Samsung had bribed Choi – notably, by offering dressage horses to Choi’s daughter, an equestrian.

The bribes were allegedly designed to smooth the way for the 2015 merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries – a move which strengthened Lee’s control over the sprawling conglomerate. Despite the opposition of some foreign shareholders, the merger went ahead after the state-run National Pension Service made an unusual decision to enable it.

In autumn and winter 2016, millions of citizens held months-long rallies in central Seoul calling for the overthrow of Park in a phenomenon known today as the “Candlelit Revolution.” The conservative Park was impeached in March 2017 and removed from office – a development that paved the way for the election of the current leftist Moon Jae-in administration.

Uneven justice

In her post-impeachment trial, Park was found guilty of both corruption, via Choi, and abuse of power – largely by delegating her responsibilities to Choi. Park is now serving a 33-year sentence – her original 24-year term was compounded by additional terms for embezzling funds from the National Intelligence Agency and for violating election laws.

Choi, Park’s widely despised crony, is serving a 20-year term.

Samsung’s Lee was jailed for five years after courts found he had bribed Choi. However, a 2018 appeal saw Lee’s jail term cut to two and a half years, suspended for four years. That allowed Lee free to walk after less than one year behind bars – generating some criticism about the lenience that Korean courts customarily show to tycoons.

Another right-wing Korean ex-president, Lee Myung-bak, is now on bail, fighting a 15-year corruption sentence: He was released in March this year, after having been jailed in October 2018.

Meanwhile, a key foreign shareholder in the controversial 2015 Samsung merger, Elliott Management, filed arbitration against Seoul in March for $718 million in damages.

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