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Wednesday 26 July 2017

Samsung heir grilled live on air by South Korean legislators

Lee Jae-yong arrives for the hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul (AP)
Lee Jae-yong arrives for the hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul (AP)

The billionaire heir to South Korean tech giant Samsung has been questioned live on TV by politicians amid the country's biggest political scandal in years.

Lee Jae-yong, 48-year-old vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and the only son of the ailing chairman, was shouted down and admonished by legislators for large parts of the two and a half-hour parliamentary questioning.

Legislators questioned him on wide-ranging issues from why Samsung sponsored the family of President Park Geun-hye's confidante to Samsung's treatment of ailing workers.

The hearing was broadcast live on major TV channels.

Mr Lee fielded questions for the first time in parliament as part of the unprecedented questioning of nine leaders from South Korea's biggest business groups about their possible roles in the scandal involving Ms Park and Choi Soon-sil, her shadowy confidante.

The scandal has increased doubts over deep ties between politicians and the country's top family-controlled businesses, known as chaebol. The president faces allegations that she played a role when big business groups donated funds for non-profit foundations under the control of Choi.

Prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether some of the 53 businesses that donated funds received any favours in return.

Many protesters who have filled Seoul streets calling for Ms Park's arrest have also vented at towards the chaebol and their founding families, shouting they are accomplices in the scandal.

During the questioning, Mr Lee and other chaebol bosses denied donating funds to the foundations to receive favours from the government. Huh Chang-soo, chairman of GS Group, said that in South Korea it is difficult for business leaders to refuse the government's requests.

Mr Lee faced most of the questions from ruling and opposition party members as the group donated the largest amount of money to the non-profit foundations and also because it was the only group that sponsored the Choi family outside the foundations.

They tried to have Mr Lee explain who at Samsung made decisions to sponsor the Choi family, but he evaded answering.

Legislators also grilled the 48-year-old heir regarding his one-on-one meetings with Ms Park, his company's business deal with the Choi family-owned company and a contentious merger of two Samsung companies last year. He admitted that the way Samsung sponsored Choi's daughter was not appropriate and that he regrets it.

But most of the time, he answered that he was not aware of issues or could not recall details. When asked how he first knew the secretive confidante of the president, the Samsung leader said he could not remember.

"I heard many times (about Choi) recently and I learned how (Samsung) supported as I confirmed the facts but I'm really sorry, lawmaker, that I don't know when I first learned (about Choi)," he said.

Some questions went beyond the scandal to other issues such as Samsung semiconductor workers who fell gravely ill and how Mr Lee accumulated wealth.

Park Young-sun, an opposition legislator, grilled Mr Lee on how much tax he paid.

Another opposition member, Sohn Hye-won, questioned the role of a secretive corporate strategy office at Samsung, which allegedly makes key decisions for Samsung companies but does not have legal responsibility.

Instead of answering specifically, Mr Lee repeatedly apologised for disappointing the public without naming what he was apologising for.

"There are many things that I myself feel embarrassed about and I regret as we have disappointed the public with many disgraceful things," he said.

Press Association

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