Another Korean Tycoon Gets a Free Pass

South Korea’s reputation for dispensing even-handed justice took yet another knock Tuesday when a court suspended the prison term of one of the country’s richest men for a gangland-style revenge assault.

It was the second time in a week that one of Korea’s high-flying tycoons avoided jail from a criminal conviction. On September 6, Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, had a three-year prison sentence for embezzlement and fraud suspended on appeal. Chung’s company had earlier offered to donate nearly $1 billion to charity. The court took Chung up on the offer, saying his value to the Korean economy was such that he should not serve jail time.

Kim Seung-Youn, the chairman of chemical and insurance giant Hanwha Group, the country’s ninth largest conglomerate, had his 18-month prison term suspended on appeal Tuesday and he was ordered to do 200 hours of community service.

Kim’s release was not altogether unexpected. He had been released temporarily last month, citing deteriorating health. He appeared in court Tuesday wearing a hospital gown. ``The sentence of one year and six months is a bit too heavy,'' Presiding Judge Kim Deuk-hwan told a Seoul courtroom, according to the Associated Press, citing Kim’s purported ill health.

Hanwha, which was founded by Kim’s father, is worth US$19 billion in assets, according to Bloomberg. It has 34 subsidiaries ranging from chemicals to property development. The share price for companies in the group rose by as much 7.8 percent on news of the chairman’s court victory. Kim is worth nearly $1 billion, according to most estimates.

Kim was convicted in July of orchestrating the kidnapping and savage beating of bar employees earlier this year who injured his son in a brawl. The revenge attacks were carried out by Kim, his bodyguards and local gangsters after his son, a Yale University student, came home in March from a drinking session at a local high-priced “room salon” hostess bar with a deep cut on his face from a beating.

The elder Kim, 55, who has a reputation for brawling and drinking, then led the revenge attacks, which involved imprisoning the victims for several hours at a construction site while they were systematically beaten. Newspapers here likened the attack to a gangster movie and the sordid tale of the tycoon using a steel pipe to hit one of the victims while others were threatened with electric shock was riveting.

The case galvanized public attention in Korea and also caused a series of high-profile investigations when it was revealed that executives of the Hanwha Group bribed police investigators in an unsuccessful effort to cover up the crime.

The conviction and sentencing, although less than prosecutors asked for at the time, was hailed as a step forward since it is rare for wealthy corporate grandees here to face the same legal judgment as commoners. It was cited as the first time in Korea that a top executive had been arrested for assault.

The government of President Roh Moo-hyun has made leveling the playing field and going after corporate crooks a priority.

The Kim case surfaced in April after Internet bloggers wrote about it, prompting the mainstream media to begin reporting on the revenge assaults. When police dragged their heels, apparently due to pressure from Hanwha and higher-ups, Roh’s office ordered senior prosecutors to go after the case, eventually leading to Kim’s arrest.

The judge on Tuesday noted that Kim had also apologized for the crime. It was earlier reported that the tycoon made a substantial private settlement with his victims.

A spokesman for Hanwha welcomed the news. "We respect the court's decision," he said. "It's fortunate." Kim, he added, "will concentrate on recovering his health."