Seoul - The vice president of Samsung is facing a retrial in a bribery scandal that has already toppled a president and could now land the so-called "prince" of South Korea back in jail. The country's highest court on Thursday threw out an appeal court's 2018 ruling that sawreleased on a suspended sentence after less than a year behind bars.
This case began in 2016 when the daughter of then-President Park Gyeun-hye's close confidant and senior aid Choi Soonsil boasted of her wealth on Facebook. She mocked regular South Koreans, saying: "If you aren't well off, blame your parents. It's also a skill to have money."
It went viral, and prompted an investigation that revealed that Choi's daughter had also bribed her way into one of the top universities and represented South Korea at the 2014 Asian Games. The investigation also revealed the extent to which President Park was dependent on her long-time confidant Choi. He was a mastermind behind government policy and decision making, and he took millions of dollars in bribes.
It also emerged that Samsung had gifted her daughter three horses worth an estimated $3 million, and paid her fees at a dressage school in Germany.
Court documents showed President Park had asked Lee to help Choi's daughter. Lee was convicted on the grounds that the horses were bribes, and the case lead to the.
A court sentenced Park to 24 years in prison and 18 billion won in fine. Choi got 20 years, and both he and his boss remain jailed.
Samsung's Lee was initially sentenced to five years in prison for corruption, but was released on appeal in February 2018, after slightly less than a year behind bars. It was the first time a member of the family at the helm of South Korea's biggest business conglomerate served jail time.
On Thursday the Supreme Court voided the appellate court's decision and sent the case back to the lower court. Park and Choi will also face retrial, with the possibility of longer sentences.
"The appeals court's ruling was based on the premise that the horses defendants gave to Choi Seo-won were not to be considered bribes, misinterpreting the principle of law regarding bribery and mistakenly affecting the ruling," Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said in a statement.
Now the Samsung heir might end up going back to prison. If he's sentenced to more than three years, the sentence cannot be suspended under South Korean law, so he would go straight to jail.
Samsung released a statement saying it "deeply regrets that this case has created concerns across the society" and asking "for support and encouragement so we can rise above the challenges and continue to contribute to the broader economy."
Samsung and its "prince"
For Koreans, Samsung is a part of life from the cradle to the grave. The company is well known for its electronics abroad, but here it also owns the best hospitals, amusement parks, fashion outlets, media corporations and a lot more.
That omnipresence makes it even more of a target for public scorn, but also a vital component in South Korea's economy. And the possibility of a senior leader, and likely future owner, of the conglomerate being jailed right as the country faces major economic challenges has rattled many.
The South Korean business community expressed concern that the court decision could drive uncertainty over Samsung's ability to help steer South Korea's economy through troubled waters.
"The Korean economy is facing challenges at home and abroad due to a trade war between the United States and China, Japan's export curbs, and companies need more support to make investment and create jobs," the Korea Enterprises Federation, a business lobbying group, said in a statement. "For the country to reduce reliance on imports of key parts and materials, Samsung should play a leading role in developing future growth drivers."
The Joongang daily, one of the major print news outlets owned by Samsung, reported the development in the case and within three hours about 3,000 people had logged on to press "unlike" on the article.
"Come to your senses!" one reader demanded of the South Korean government, warning that Samsung was vital to the economic well-being of the entire state.
But many of those pouring scorn on the Supreme Court's decision were people over the age of 40. On social media channels, used more by younger generations, there was revelry in seeing someone long considered an "untouchable" in Korean society appearing to face justice.
One Twitter, "Jay-dragon" was trending. It's an irreverent term often used to mock the Samsung heir, who is also referred to as the "prince" of South Korea.
"Not only Jay-Dragon but it's so much fun to see chaebol cornered!" wrote one user, using a common word to refer to massive, family-owned and run business conglomerates seen as being above the law by some. "I don't care if the chairmans of conglomerates have a hard time."
Others sardonically passed around a GIF showing a video clip of Lee exiting jail in February, in reverse.
CBSNews.com's Tucker Reals in London contributed to this report.