Korea’s Tycoons Questioned as Corruption Scandal Grips Country

South Korean Companies Face Lawmakers' Questions

South Korean lawmakers began questioning nine of the country’s top tycoons, including the heads of Samsung and Hyundai Motor groups, in connection with President Park Geun-hye’s influence-peddling scandal that’s been roiling the nation for weeks.

In what may be the country’s biggest parliamentary hearing ever, the National Assembly began a special investigation hearing of the leaders of the so-called chaebol conglomerates from about 10 a.m. in Seoul, with Korean TV news channels broadcasting it live. Lawmakers began questioning the billionaires about why their business gave tens of millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, the president’s confidante at the center of the scandal.

It’s the first time all the heads of the biggest family run chaebols, who usually shun publicity, have been called together to testify to parliament. They are facing questions whether they gave donations to Choi’s foundations at the request of President Park, seeking preferential regulations or approvals.

The hearing, part of a broader political scandal, comes amid a tumultuous year for an economy that’s struggling to maintain economic growth. Samsung’s exploding phones, the collapse of Hanjin Shipping Co. and investigations into the conduct of the head of the Lotte retail group eroded confidence in the nation’s industrial system. Its shipbuilding and steel industries are facing difficulties, and Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol has cited record household debt as a risk to financial stability.

Jay Y. Lee, the de facto leader at Korea’s biggest chaebol and vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., faces questions whether the government returned the favor by helping push through a controversial merger between two group units last year -- something that Samsung has said it has no comment on.

Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin and SK Group boss Chey Tae-won, face allegations that their businesses donated money to foundations controlled by Choi in return for duty-free business licenses. Lotte has denied allegations of wrongdoing, while SK Group has said it has no comments on ongoing investigations.

Those appearing Tuesday also included Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo, LG Group’s Koo Bon-moo, Hanhwa Group’s Kim Seung-youn, Hanjin Group’s Cho Yang-ho, CJ Group’s Sohn Kyung-shik and GS Group’s Huh Chang-soo.

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