Scandal hearings put S. Korea tycoons in hot seat

Jung Ha-Won

Seoul (AFP) - South Korea lawmakers on Monday kicked off an unprecedented series of hearings that will see the country's business elite grilled over a corruption scandal engulfing impeachment-threatened President Park Geun-Hye.

The powerful heads of family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols," such as Samsung and Hyundai will be among those testifying before a parliamentary investigation ahead of an impeachment vote to remove the president on Friday.

The hearings opened on the back of a series of mass anti-Park demonstrations in Seoul that have seen millions of people take to the streets.

Park is accused of colluding with her long-time friend, Choi Soon-Sil, to strong-arm giant corporations into "donating" nearly $70 million to two dubious non-profit foundations.

Choi has been indicted for coercion and abuse of power, and is accused of syphoning some of the donated funds for personal use. She denies all criminal charges.

Choi had been summoned for questioning at the televised hearings, but made it clear Monday she would absent herself, citing health grounds. Lawmakers said she faced jail time for contempt if she failed to appear.

Tuesday's testimony will be devoted to interrogating the corporate tycoons, including Samsung group scion Lee Jae-Yong, Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-Koo and seven heads of other conglomerates like LG, Lotte, Hanjin and CJ.

They are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, but the "Choi-gate" scandal has taken the lid off simmering public resentment over their influence and perceived sense of privilege at a time of slowing economic growth

- Tycoon tutorials -

According to company sources cited by the largest-circulation newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, many of them have been going through frantic preparations to avoid any public humiliation, holding mock question and answer sessions with aides and memorising responses to sensitive issues.

Some researched subway and bus fares in case they are asked to prove their common-touch credentials, while others sent managers on recces to the national assembly -- timing the walk to the hearing room and working out routes to avoid the press, Chosun said.

Chaebol heads are unused to being questioned or held accountable -- even to their shareholders.

"It is part of the deep-rooted, twisted corporate culture in South Korea to treat founding family members as if they are royalty," said Shim Jung-Taik, an author of several books on Samsung and its corporate culture including a biography of its ailing chairman, Lee Kun-Hee.

"None of them would have attended these hearings in normal times. But the public fury shown at recent mass rallies was too much to ignore even for these royals," Shim said.

- Samsung woes -

Samsung -- the South's largest business group -- made the biggest contributions of 20 billion won ($17 million) to Choi's foundations, followed by Hyundai, SK, LG and Lotte.

Prosecutors have raided the headquarters of Samsung and other groups for any evidence that they received policy favours in exchange for their contributions.

Samsung is separately accused of funnelling millions of euros to Choi to bankroll her daughter's equestrian training in Germany.

As part of the widening probe, prosecutors are also investigating whether Samsung lobbied officials at the state pension fund for their support over a contested merger deal last year.

Park has not been summoned for questioning by lawmakers.

Monday's session involved several presidential aides who were grilled over some of the more lurid elements uncovered by the case -- including the mass purchase by Park's office of Viagra pills.

The officials said the erectile-dysfunction drug had been bought to treat potential altitude sickness during Park's tour of various African nations in May.

In order to secure the required two-thirds majority, the opposition-sponsored impeachment motion will need the support of more than two-dozen lawmakers from Park's ruling Saenuri Party.

Saenuri rebels have sent mixed messages on how they might vote, but in the wake of another huge street protest on Saturday, signalled that they were likely to come down on the side of impeachment.

The party's official proposal that Park be allowed to step down voluntarily in April has met with public anger, and a torrent of text messages and e-mails urging its members to oust the president.

"I get a text message every single second," said Saenuri legislator Lee Eun-Jae.