Former Samsung execs say Choi extorted them

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Former Samsung execs say Choi extorted them

Former Samsung Group leaders said they had no choice but to support a longtime friend of former President Park Geun-hye because of her reputation and power, challenging the charges that the nation’s largest conglomerate bribed Park in return for political favors. Five former and current Samsung leaders are currently standing trial on charges of offering or promising massive bribes to Park and her friend, Choi Soon-sil. The bribes totaled more than 43 billion won ($38.4 million), including a generous sponsorship for the equestrian training for Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra.

The Seoul Central District Court allowed the independent counsel, which acts as the prosecution in the trial, to question the defendants since Monday. Two former Samsung Electronics executives, Park Sang-jin and Hwang Sung-soo, took the stand on Monday. They had served as chairman and vice chairman of the Korea Equestrian Federation. The questioning of Park continued until after midnight, and the court continued to hear his testimony Tuesday. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and two other former executives, Choi Gee-sung and Chang Choong-ki, were also scheduled to give testimonies Tuesday, but the possibility grew that they may be postponed until the next day.

On Monday, Hwang testified that Choi had made various demands concerning expensive horses for Chung’s training and Samsung accepted them because of her reputation and power. Asked if Samsung let Choi do everything she wants, Hwang said, “We were dragged around because of Choi’s background.”

The independent counsel said Samsung bribed Park through Choi in return for the president’s help in getting a state-run pension corporation to exercise its voting right to support a controversial merger in 2015, which cemented Lee’s control over Samsung. Lawyers for Samsung leaders, however, said that the money it offered to Choi was not a bribe. They argued that Samsung was extorted by Choi. Hwang also testified that he did not report to Samsung Vice Chairman Lee about Samsung’s support for the equestrian federation. He said he had reported to then-Samsung Electronics President Park Sang-jin about Choi’s requests but was not in the position to know if the demands were reported to Lee.

Following Hwang’s testimony, Park was questioned on Monday and Tuesday. He testified that he did not pay attention to the business’ ties to the Korea Equestrian Federation even after he was appointed as its head in March 2015, because he treated it as an honorary post. He said he did not know about Choi’s power at the time.

After the controversial merger was approved on July 17, 2015, then-President Park met with Vice Chairman Lee in an exclusive meeting on July 25. According to Park Sang-jin, Lee faced lengthy criticism by the president for Samsung’s poor support for the equestrian federation. Lee met with Samsung executives, including Park Sang-jin, later in the afternoon and asked why he had to be scolded by the president. Park Sang-jin said he tried to find out what was going on.

“It is not an ordinary event for Lee to be yelled at by the president,” he told the court Monday. “After I learned about Choi’s relationship with the president, I judged that this was an urgent issue. I was afraid that she will have a plot against Samsung if we reject her demands.”

He added, “I accompanied the president on her trip to Ethiopia last May and had an opportunity to shake hands with her. Choi later asked me if I had a good time shaking hands with the president. I thought we could not stop the relationship with Choi as long as Park is the president.”

BY KIM SUN-MI, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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