Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee yesterday appeared at the South Korean special prosecutor’s office for questioning on suspicion of bribery in an influence-peddling scandal that might force suspended South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office.
The country’s top conglomerate has become important in the investigation of Park, who was impeached by the South Korean National Assembly last month over the corruption scandal. She would be the country’s first democratically elected leader to be removed from office early if the South Korean Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment.
Park has denied wrongdoing.
“I am very sorry to the South Korean people for not showing a better side,” Lee told reporters as he arrived at the office in a black South Korean-made Ssangyong sedan, greeted by protesters holding signs calling for his arrest and accusing him of being the president’s accomplice.
The legislature impeached Park over allegations she allowed a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to exert inappropriate influence over state affairs.
Choi is accused of colluding with Park to pressure big businesses, including the Samsung Group, to contribute to nonprofit foundations backing the president’s initiatives.
Choi, on trial on charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud, has denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors on Wednesday named Lee a suspect and are investigating whether Samsung gave 30 billion won (US$25.44 million) to a business and foundations backed by Choi in exchange for the national pension fund’s support for a 2015 merger of Samsung C&T Corp and Cheil Industries Inc.
Lee has denied bribery.
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and dark red tie, Lee bowed after making brief remarks to reporters.
Proving improper dealings between Park, or her confidant Choi, and Samsung would be key for the prosecutors’ case, analysts said, adding their goal is to prove Park or her surrogates such as Choi took bribes from corporations in exchange for favors.
The prosecution spokesman on Wednesday would not rule out the possibility of investigators seeking an arrest warrant for Lee, 48, who last month denied accusations that the conglomerate sought to curry the favor of Park or Choi to secure the 2015 merger, a deal seen as critical to ensuring his control of the conglomerate.
Investigators questioned two senior Samsung Group executives this week as witnesses.
The scandal has triggered weekly rallies calling for Park to step down.
She has apologized and this month said that the pension fund’s support for the Samsung companies’ merger was in the nation’s interest.
If Park were to leave office, a presidential election would be held within 60 days. Among the expected contenders is former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.
Lee took over as leader of the conglomerate after his father, founding family patriarch Lee Kun-hee, had a heart attack in 2014.
Jay Y. Lee’s arrest or indictment would be a blow to Samsung and the family, which has been streamlining its business to ensure a stable transfer of control from the ailing Lee Kun-hee to his children.