February 13, 2018 4:47 pm JST  (Updated February 13, 2018 6:47 pm JST)

Friend of South Korea's ex-President Park handed 20 years in jail

Bribery and abuse of power scandal lands Lotte chairman 2 1/2-year sentence

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer

Choi Soon-sil, left, arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Feb. 13. © AP

SEOUL -- The Seoul Central District Court sentenced former President Park Geun-hye's lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for abuse of power and extorting tens of billions of won from conglomerates, increasing the odds that Park will receive a similar punishment.

Lotte Holdings Chairman Shin Dong-bin also received two years and six months in jail for paying 7 billion won ($6.4 million at the current exchange rate) in bribes to Choi, seeking her influence in obtaining a license to operate a duty-free shop in the company's Lotte World Tower in southern Seoul. Shin was arrested at the court.

"Choi abused power based on her personal relationship with the president by pressuring conglomerates to donate to foundations. She is also responsible for meddling in national affairs, which led to the ouster of the president," said Judge Kim Se-yoon.

Kim said that Shin should be punished heavily because bribery seriously damages fairness in the market. "If we do not punish 7 billion won in bribery, any company will be tempted to bribe instead of taking the time and money to compete with others," the judge said.

The ruling comes one year after South Korea's Constitutional Court ousted Park, upholding the impeachment petition brought by the National Assembly, the country's parliament, which accused her of violating the constitution by allowing Choi to meddle in national politics.

The court ruled that Choi, 61, played key role in extorting 77.4 billion won from large family-run companies in 2015, including Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK, LG and Lotte. It also said that she had taken an additional 7.2 billion won in payments from Samsung, which she used for her daughter's horseback riding lessons in Germany.

Observers say that Choi's harsh sentence will affect Park's case, which is pending at the same court, because the two were indicted on similar charges, including abuse of power and bribe-taking. The former president has denied any wrongdoing.

The court also sentenced Ahn Jong-beom, former senior economic secretary to Park, to six years in prison for blackmailing conglomerates into making contributions to two foundations run by Choi. He was also convicted of taking 49.4 million won in personal payoffs.

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