South Koreans assumed that Lee Kun-hee was the equivalent of royalty, an untouchable oligarch at the helm of one of the world's largest companies, the Samsung Group.
So the shock came right after South Korea's pro-business president, Lee Myung-bak (no relation to the Samsung chairman), took office four years ago. Prosecutors raided the home of Samsung's Lee, as well as Samsung headquarters. In July 2008, he was convicted of financial wrongdoing and tax evasion.
To some, it appeared that South Korea's young democracy, which was set up in 1987, was maturing: The government finally had the spine to wrest away power from a tiny clique of business executives notorious for flouting the law and getting away with it. Lee was sentenced to three years of a suspended jail sentence.
But it turned out that power in South Korea is not fleeting. A year later, Lee Myung-bak pardoned the Samsung scion. He claimed that Lee Kun-hee could influence South Korea's now-successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Critics replied that power, as usual, had trumped justice.
The South Korean economy is dominated by a handful of chaebol, the politically connected business empires like Samsung and Hyundai. They're often prone to scandal in this raucous democracy, and they've become an easy target in South Korea's election Wednesday while the North Korea issue sits on the sidelines.
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Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in are both promising to curb chaebol influence, halt unfair competition, and strengthen small businesses through series of reforms. Rather than focus on the North Korea problem, this election's buzzword is "economic democratization."
It's a purposefully vague phrase that appeals to many.
"This term is a catch-all to win broad support from people who feel they are victims of chaebol bosses, chaebol domination, cozy collusion between business and politicians, corrupt bankers, elitism, lack of job opportunities, obsession with degrees from a handful of top universities and anything else you can be a victim of," said Mike Breen, author of "The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies."
But with the chaebol shipping some 70 percent of South Korean exports, any clean-up could be unrealistic. "I doubt [Park] will be able to do much about the chaebol," Breen added.
Prosecutors have frequently targeted and charged their executives with embezzlement, tax evasion, and in the case of the Hanhwa Group, a bizarre incident when its chairman struck a man with a steel pipe.