THE TROUBLED HEIR

He is nicknamed the Crown Prince of Samsung, but Lee Jae Yong may well be the Crown Prince of South Korea.

South Korea, after all, is Samsung country. The homegrown giant conglomerate founded by Mr Lee's grandfather Lee Byung Chul in the 1930s as a transport company now accounts for 20 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

South Koreans use Samsung smartphones, watch TV shows on Samsung sets, do their laundry on Samsung washers and their shopping with Samsung credit cards, invest in Samsung insurance products, holiday at Samsung theme parks and hotels… the list goes on.

Atop this octopus-like business empire sits Mr Lee, 49.

The only son of Samsung patriarch Lee Kun Hee joined the company in 1991 and is now vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, the world's largest maker of mobile devices and the jewel in Samsung.

But Mr Lee has been Samsung’s de facto boss since May 2014, when his powerful father was hospitalised with a heart attack.

Lee Jae Yong (centre) arriving at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, to be questioned on Feb 13, 2017.
Mr Lee Jae Yong (centre) arriving at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, to be questioned on Feb 13, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

That year, father and son were jointly named by Forbes magazine as the 35th most powerful person in the world and the most powerful Koreans.

It seemed only a matter of time before the Harvard-educated Mr Lee took over his father's mantle.

But, according to a special prosecutor investigating a massive corruption scandal that has consumed President Park Geun Hye, Mr Lee might have been a little too eager to take charge.

LIP BALM PRINCE

Samsung is accused of giving 43 billion won (S$52.8 million) to Ms Park's confidante, Ms Choi Soon Sil, in exchange for the national pension fund's support for a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates - Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T - that gave Mr Lee greater control.

About half of the money went to a business and foundations backed by Ms Choi, and the other half went to bankrolling Ms Choi's daughter Ms Chung Yoo Ra in her equestrian career.

Mr Lee applies lip balm during a parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec 6, 2017.
Mr Lee applies lip balm during a parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec 6, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Mr Lee denied bribery accusations during a parliamentary hearing on Dec 6, 2016, where he was singled out by lawmakers for a grilling out of the eight chaebols, or conglomerates, chiefs summoned.

"Do you know anything?" one legislator chided him as TV cameras rolled. The tycoon, who looked pale and ill-at-ease, repeatedly applied lip balm to his dry lips.

"Do you think you’re doing a good job as the head of a global company like Samsung by saying that you don’t know?" the legislator demanded after Mr Lee said he did not know who in Samsung authorised cash transfers to a foundation in Germany that funded the equestrian training of Ms Chung.

I have so many weaknesses and Samsung has things to correct.
Mr Lee Jae Yong

It was all perhaps a little too much for the Samsung prince. He has tried to stay out of the public eye all his adult life, through his father's bribery and tax evasion convictions in 1996 and 2008, the suicide death of his youngest sister in 2005, and his own divorce in 2009.

A dressing-down in public, on national TV, is unlike anything he has experienced in his gilded life.

Woodenly, he expressed remorse and contrition over the role Samsung may or may not have played in the biggest scandal in South Korea for years, without answering pointed questions like whether Samsung acted in cahoots with Ms Choi.

A protester carries a placard showing an image of Samsung heir Mr Lee during an anti-government protest in Seoul on Jan 21, 2017.
A protester carries a placard showing an image of Samsung heir Mr Lee during an anti-government protest in Seoul on Jan 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

"I have so many weaknesses and Samsung has things to correct," he said. "This crisis made me realise that we need to change ourselves."

His non-answers prompted one exasperated committee member to shout: "Stop giving ridiculous answers and excuses!""

TOO BIG TO FAIL?

Few, apparently, were convinced by his protestations of innocence.

He was subjected to marathon questioning sessions by prosecutors for the following months, before being taken into custody on Feb 17, 2017.

It was a fall from the stratosphere to earth.

Home was a 6.56 sq m detention cell and the bed, a mattress on the floor. The toilet was also in the cell, in the corner behind a partition. On another side of the room was a small study desk.

Mr Lee wore an inmate's uniform and ate 1,443 won (S$1.77) meals served on plastic trays slid through a small square window in the cell door. He washed his own tray.

He was allowed no contact with other inmates. Any exercise must be done alone, for only 30 minutes a day.

Mr Lee, following his arrest, arriving at the office of a special prosecutor in Seoul on Feb 22, 2017.
Mr Lee, following his arrest, arriving at the office of a special prosecutor in Seoul on Feb 22, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

On Feb 28, he was indicted on charges of bribery and embezzlement over his alleged role in the corruption scandal. He was also accused of committing perjury when he insisted during the parliamentary hearing that he never bribed Ms Choi or Ms Park.

He maintained that the “donations” Samsung paid out to Ms Choi were coerced, suggesting that the company was extorted.

Independent Counsel Park Young Soo speaking at a press conference at the special prosecutor’s office in Seoul, South Korea, on March 6, 2017.
Independent Counsel Park Young Soo speaking at a press conference at the special prosecutor’s office in Seoul, South Korea, on March 6, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

"Samsung Group vice-chairman Lee Jae Yong colluded with others including the corporate strategy office chief Choi Gee Sung to bribe the President and Choi Soon Sil with an aim to receive support for his succession by embezzling corporate funds,” Mr Park Young Soo told a televised news conference on March 6 after 70 days of investigation.

The "trial of the century" of South Korea's modern-day prince began on March 9 at the Seoul Central District Court. During the trial, prosecutors drew on hundreds of hours of testimony by dozens of witnesses as they sought to link Samsung's multi-million-dollar donations to Ms Choi with Mr Lee's bid to merge the two Samsung affiliates in order to gain more control over the Samsung empire.

Mr Lee's defence team, reportedly made up of 13 top lawyers, said he was innocent. They said Samsung was pressured by Park to make the donations - Mr Lee was not aware of them and did not approve them.

On Aug 25, 2017, Mr Lee - handcuffed and bound with white rope around his dark jacket - arrived at the court on a justice ministry bus to learn his fate. As hundreds of the magnate's supporters rallied outside, he was found guilty of bribery, perjury, and embezzlement and sentenced to five years' jail.

Mr Lee leaves after his verdict trial at the Seoul Central District Court on Aug 25, 2017. Lee was handed down five years' jail sentence.
Mr Lee leaves after his verdict trial at the Seoul Central District Court on Aug 25, 2017. Lee was handed down five years' jail sentence. PHOTO: REUTERS

“The essence of the case is the close links between political power and economic power,” said the presiding judge of Seoul Central District Court, Mr Lee Jin Dong.

“This case stemmed from Lee Jae Yong, who was preparing for a leadership transfer, and Samsung executives offered bribes to the president, expecting a favour in the group’s leadership transition,” he said.

Mr Lee leaves a detention centre in Uiwang, south of Seoul, on Feb 5, 2018 after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence. He became the third generation of his family to benefit from merciful legal treatment.
Mr Lee leaves a detention centre in Uiwang, south of Seoul, on Feb 5, 2018 after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence. He became the third generation of his family to benefit from merciful legal treatment. PHOTO: AFP

But the sentence was reduced in February 2018 to a suspended jail term on appeal, which saw Mr Lee - who had spent a year in jail - released immediately.

Like father, like son, one might say. Mr Lee Kun Hee was sentenced to a suspended three-year jail term in 2008 for evading taxes, only to be pardoned by then-President Lee Myung Bak just months later in the name of "national interest".

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FALL OF THE QUEEN

Source: Korea Herald/Asia News Network, Korea Times, Wall Street Journal, Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, Office of the President (Cheongwadae), Reuters
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