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Blue House pushed Lee out of CJ: insider

Group’s films, TV shows were deemed derisive, left-wing

Nov 08,2016
The Blue House reportedly pressured Lee Mie-kyung, vice chairwoman of CJ Group, to step down as de facto top executive of the conglomerate in 2013. An inside source said Blue House didn’t like films and TV programs made by the group, saying they were “left-wing.”

“Vice Chairwoman Lee suffered greatly after she was told by the Blue House to step down,” a CJ executive who requested anonymity told the JoongAng Ilbo over the phone on Sunday, confirming circulating reports. “While she did not step down right away, she ultimately determined that it was difficult to hang on and left [for the United States].”

Lee allegedly expressed her grievances to people around her, saying, “How can I be a left-winger. Why do I have to step down?”

Broadcaster MBN disclosed on Thursday a recorded telephone conversation dating to the end of 2013 between a top executive at CJ and an unnamed former presidential secretary, who said it was the “VIP’s wish” that Lee step down from the post. VIP allegedly referred to President Park Geun-hye.

The conversation was later revealed to have taken place between CJ Group Chairman Sohn Kyung-shik and Cho Wong-dong, a former presidential senior secretary for economic affairs.

Some 10 months after receiving the notice from the Blue House, the vice chairwoman eventually left Seoul for the United States, stepping down from her role managing the conglomerate. She claimed it was to treat a health condition. She has mostly stayed abroad since October 2014.

Lee, a granddaughter of Lee Byung-chull, the founder of Samsung Group, had been managing CJ Group as the de facto CEO during the period following the imprisonment of her younger brother, CJ Group Chairman Lee Jay-hyun. Chairman Lee was arrested in July 2013 for charges of embezzlement and tax evasion and was released earlier this year from prison on a presidential pardon ahead of Liberation Day in August.

“She had more passion for the business than anyone else and leaving suddenly because of health reasons didn’t make any sense,” the source continued. “She thought she could not return until this administration comes to an end and left for the United States.”

Even after she moved to the United States, Lee continued to stay involved in projects she had spearheaded. She attended the yearend 2014 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) in Hong Kong.

Also known by her American name Miky, Lee began overseeing CJ E&M, the entertainment arm of the conglomerate, in the 1990s and embarked on investing in moviemaking.

While there is much speculation over why Lee was pressured to step down, some point out that the Blue House may have been irked by CJ’s films and shows that it believed had left-wing tendencies or satirized the president.

CJ’s 2012 historical blockbuster “Masquerade,” starring actor Lee Byung-hyun in a dual-role as the controversial King Gwanghae of the Joseon Dynasty and a doppelganger commoner, was released ahead of the presidential elections and watched by liberal presidential hopefuls Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo. Moon even shed tears watching the film, saying he recalled the late President Roh Moo-hyun through the film.

CJ E&M’s cable network channel tvN broadcasts a political satire and comedy show, Saturday Night Live Korea, inspired by the late-night American TV show SNL, which also has been critiqued for its liberal tendencies.

“Vice Chairman Lee, following the success of ‘Tidal Wave’ (Haeundae) in 2009, became fixated on disaster films and produced blockbusters including ‘My Way’ (2011), ‘Tower’ (2012) and ‘R2B: Return to Base’ (2012), which didn’t do so well,” the executive said. “At a time when there was talk that a film produced by Lee Mie-kyung would surely fail, the vice chairwoman was zealous to show, ‘I am not yet dead.’ And ‘Gwanghae’ was the project she started.”

He added he had no idea why Masquerade became labeled as a leftist film. “It is a film that has the theme of political adversity,” he pointed out, adding that they had even invited President Park Geun-hye, at that time the conservative presidential contender, to attend the screening. “President Park’s aides decided on a date, and she was supposed to see it but canceled because of another schedule and couldn’t come.”

Criticism also fell on CJ’s previous films as well.

The executive recalled that once “Gwanghae” was labeled a left-wing film, some went on to criticize CJ’s older films, such as the 2007 movie “May 18,” which recounts the events leading up to the Gwangju Massacre in 1980.

This was where accusations began that Lee is a left-winger.

The company tried to counteract the reputation by making advertisements for Park’s “creative economy” initiative.

After Park came into office, CJ’s films changed in tone, emphasizing patriotism.

This includes the 2014 box office hits “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” about Korean naval commander Yi Sun-sin and “Ode to My Father,” which shows the difficulties Koreans faced during and after the 1950-53 Korean War, a film which moved the current president to tears.

While critically acclaimed, this film has been criticized by some for glorifying industrialization under the Park Chung-hee administration, the incumbent president’s father, and glossing over the darker side of authoritarianism.

This year’s “Operation Chromite” also emphasizes patriotism, recalling the events of the Battle of Incheon in September 1950 during the Korean War.

Observers, including film critic Oh Dong-jin, speculate that a Korean Night event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2014 also played a role in Lee’s eventual departure later that year. Lee appears to have captured more of the spotlight than the president.

Oh pointed out on a CBS radio program Monday, “CJ Vice Chairwoman Lee and Psy seemed to have been the stars of the event, [compared to President Park].”

CJ Group recently has been mired with accusations of close links with key players in the Choi Soon-sil scandal.

CJ allegedly invested more than a trillion won in a cultural project dubbed “Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt” led by Cha Eun-taek, a director of TV commercials and a confidant of Choi, the president’s influence-peddling friend.

Cha, the de facto head of the Mi-R Foundation, which was established with the approval of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in October 2015 and received 48.6 billion won from 19 conglomerates within two days of its launch, also is believed to have close ties with CJ Group and Vice Chairwoman Lee.

BY JANG JOO-YOUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]



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