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Prosecutor seeks arrest of Samsung head as part of spiraling corruption scandal

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Business Leaders Converge In Sun Valley, Idaho For Allen And Company Annual Meeting Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A South Korean prosecutor is seeking the arrest of Lee Jae-yong, the Samsung vice-chairman and heir apparent, as part of a corruption scandal that has engulfed the nation and led to the impeachment of its president, Park Geun-hye.

Prosecutors accuse Samsung of donating tens of millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations connected to Choi Soon-sil, a controversial friend of Park’s, in exchange for government support of a merger between two Samsung affiliates.

Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was questioned for 22 hours at the prosecutor’s office last week. The heads of LG and Hyundai have also been questioned over whether they were seeking favorable treatment when making payments to the foundations connected to Choi.

The broader corruption scandal is complex to say the least, but centers around accusations of impropriety in the relationship between Choi and Park. Choi, the daughter of a shamanistic cult leader, is a longtime friend of Park’s who stands accused of exerting control over government decision-making without holding any formal office.

Lee is the son of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who has been incapacitated ever since a 2014 heart attack. The younger Lee is widely assumed to be in control of the company, having long been tipped to succeed his father and grandfather Lee Byung-chul, the company’s founder, before him.

The Lee family is no stranger to controversy; Lee Kun-hee resigned from Samsung in 2008 after being found guilty in a slush funds scandal, and later returned to the company after receiving the second of his personal presidential pardons and serving on the International Olympic Committee.

Having received the request for an arrest warrant, the Seoul court must now decide whether to grant it. If Lee were to be arrested on bribery charges, it would increase the likelihood that Park’s impeachment would be upheld, as well as sending a further shockwave through South Korea. The country has long wrestled with the issue of how to tackle corruption in its chaebol culture, but having just seen the widest public protests to date, Samsung’s leadership may find this scandal trickier to navigate than ever before.