One name stood out among 6,526 others in South Korea (SK) on Thursday, as President Park Geun-hye’s special pardons for Liberation Day included a renowned business leader with a history of financial wrongdoing.
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won was sentenced to four years in prison back in 2013 after being caught embezzling close to $45 million from affiliates – and he had already been pardoned in the past.
With a fragile reputation on the line thanks to a series of scandals, Park explained her move at a Cabinet meeting.
“I decided to grant special pardons in order to help forge national reconciliation and revitalize the economy, as well as boost people's spirits," Park was quoted as saying by local news agency Yonhap.
South Korea’s pardons have been notorious for offering an escape to imprisoned politicians and tycoons, and despite the current president’s own previous criticism of the system, the holiday tradition prevailed in line with Saturday’s 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan.
The late designation of Friday as a substitute public holiday appears to have done much to bolster morale – Park’s Realmeter approval rating for last week jumped nearly 5 percentage points to 39.5 percent.
But that gain has been risked by bringing Chey back into the business arena.
As one of the country’s top 10 richest people, there is no doubting Chey’s influence – nor that of SK Group, one of South Korea’s dominant family-run conglomerates.
However, the cracks in the public perception of feudal corporate structures have been all too clear in recent months – from the furious backlash against in-flight bad behavior by now former Korean Air Vice President Heather Cho to palpable exasperation at an ongoing succession drama involving two Lotte Group brothers.
With local growth forecasts for this year on the slide, the government’s response has been to promise reform while improving youth employment prospects, another hot-button issue tied to the rule of select business families.
Park stopped short of pardoning a further controversial figure in Hanwha Group chairman Kim Seung-yeon, but then he was seeing out a suspended sentence outside jail in any case.
Seoul’s justice ministry insisted that most of the pardons were offered to ordinary convicts – but it remains questionable whether the move will indeed “boost people’s spirits,” other than those directly benefiting.