Asia-Pacific News

With Samsung scion held in small cell, South Korea continues probe

Samsung's boss questioned over the weekend
Samsung's boss questioned over the weekend

It was an intense weekend for Jay Y. Lee as a special prosecution team in South Korea grilled the de-facto leader of Samsung for more than 20 hours.

Nothing has changed when it comes to Samsung's stance: The company is admitting to giving money to foundations in the center of a corruption scandal that has led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, but Samsung maintains it received nothing in return.

Moving forward, next Tuesday is a deadline for the special prosecution's investigation. That team says it will be indicting the Samsung Group chief before then.

"It was unprecedented that the leader of Samsung Group is arrested. It's a chance for chaebols to realize that they, too, can get in trouble and face social resistance when their practice is irregular," Chung Sun-sup, founder of CEO of, a local corporate tracker, said.

The term chaebol largely refers to a conglomerate structure of connected businesses bound in part by familial ties.

For now, Lee is back in the Seoul detention center, and back in his 70-square-foot cell.

On Saturday, Lee had been handcuffed and tied with white rope, as he was taken for questioning by South Korean authorities after a night in a cell.

Lee, a 48-year-old with a net worth of $6.2 billion, heads the technology giant that is the world's biggest manufacturer of smartphones, flat-screen televisions and memory chips.

Brand Korea facing damage: Expert
Brand Korea facing damage: Expert

The special prosecutor's office accuses Lee of bribing a close friend of the president to gain government favors related to leadership succession at the conglomerate. It said on Friday it will indict him on charges including bribery, embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury.

"It might be a good chance for them enhance their corporate governance system. They have been relying too much on this family control system for many decades, so this might be a good chance for professional managers to actually run the empire," Lee Ji-soo, CEO of the Law & Business Research Center, told CNBC.

There are, however, those who think the arrest of the Samsung leader is a baby step in bringing sweeping changes to chaebols, given that the cozy relationship between the political circle and Korean conglomerates has been a chronic problem.

"I don't expect anything very concrete out of the National Assembly. Just a lot of talk and no action. But it will be a big issue in the coming presidential election," Anthony Michell from the Korea Associates Business Consultancy said on CNBC.

The Constitutional Court in South Korea is reviewing the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. If the impeachment is ruled to be merited, the country has 60 days to hold a presidential election.

In the meantime, the special prosecutor's office has also requested to the office of the prime minister or the acting president at the moment for more time to probe other chaebols. SK, Lotte, CJ and Posco are also believed to have links to the scandal as well, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.

—Reuters contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when Anthony Michell spoke with CNBC.