South Korea's president Park Geun-hye pardoned 6,527 individuals on Thursday in a move design to spur economic growth and lift the nation's spirits. Among the most high-profile of these is Chey Tae-won, head of the country's third-biggest conglomerate SK Group, and who was serving a four-year prison sentence for embezzling nearly $47 million. "I decided to grant special pardons in order to help forge national reconciliation and revitalize the economy as well as to boost people’s spirits," said President Park in a cabinet meeting, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The pardons highlight South Korea's often uncomfortable relationship with its chaebol — huge conglomerates that include global brands such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. These are often run by families that pass down the top job from generation to generation and they dominate the country's economy, with the four largest making up around 40 percent of South Korea's stock market capitalization. The SK Group, for example, has interests in industries including construction, shipping, and petroleum, as well as running the country's largest wireless mobile network provider SK Telecom.
The heads of Samsung, Hyundai, and SK Group have all received pardons in recent years
In recent years, though, many of their executives have been charged for white-collar crimes only to receive suspended sentences and presidential pardons. Chey Tae-won himself was previously imprisoned in 2003 for accounting fraud, and Samsung's chairman Lee Kun-hee has received two presidential pardons as well as being accused of personal corruption. The heads of the Hyundai and Hanwha chaebol have similarly been charged before receiving suspended sentences or presidential pardons.
There is growing discontent in South Korea about this sort of treatment. A Gallup Korea poll in July this year showed that only 35 percent were in favor of pardons for executives, while 54 percent of those surveyed opposed them, according to Reuters. Late last year there was also outrage after a Korean Air executive ordered one of her company's aircraft to return to the airport gate after she was served nuts in a bag rather than a bowl.
In her 2012 presidential campaign, Park had promised to "strictly limit" pardons to chaebol executives, but it's thought that the country's slowing economy has led to a change in policy. Last month, the government announced a $20 billion stimulus package after cutting its growth estimates from 3.8 percent to 3.1 percent, and on Thursday, Park told her cabinet: "The pardons have included some businessmen, for the tasks we face, economic revival, and job creation."