Later this week, if live TV cameras are allowed into court, South Koreans will get a front-row seat to the verdict of the Samsung conglomerate’s billionaire heir Jay Y. Lee on corruption charges.
The presiding judge is considering whether to broadcast the end of the trial, which has gripped the nation for six months as part of a wider scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye. Millions held candlelight protests last year, leading to her ouster and putting the spotlight on influence-peddling within corporate corridors and the top levels of goverment.
South Koreans, and other citizens in Asia, rarely get to peek into the workings of their legal systems. Court officials in Seoul have changed rules so the Friday verdict can be nationally televised, acknowledging that there’s a need to improve the public’s right to know about important cases. While a comparison to the 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict in the U.S. might be a stretch, the judgment for Samsung’s 49-year-old heir could be the most dramatic courtroom moment since the release of a photo in 1996 of two former South Korean presidents standing hand-in-hand as they each received a death sentence and 22 years in prison for insurrection.
“Times have changed,” said Choe Kang-wook, a Seoul-based lawyer. ”Judiciary authorities feel the pressure to let the public in on major verdicts. They know they can avoid controversy by being transparent, and that’s important especially when people are watching these cases closely after taking to the streets for chaebol reforms.”
Although judicial rules have been changed, the judge will still have to decide whether to allow a broadcast. A live camera would be a first for any district court, the primary battlefield in the country’s three-tier judicial system. Today, hundreds of people showed up at the court to draw lots for about 30 available seats. From ordinary citizens and journalists, to supporters of Lee and disgruntled former Samsung workers, a wide swathe of the public showed up for a chance to witness this week’s verdict.
Park is also on trial in a separate proceeding, which will probably be wrapped up in October. She’s accused of using her administration to trade favors for a confidante. When protests erupted last year, Lee was targeted because of millions of dollars Samsung donated to organizations associated with Park’s confidant.
Prosecutors are demanding a 12-year jail term for Lee, accusing him of bribing the confidante in return for government support of his succession at the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips, charges Lee denied with tears in court. The national outrage toward ties between government and business brought in a new president vowing to get tough on them.
The decision to allow for live television coverage risks further worsening Samsung’s corporate image, after Lee was detained in February on bribery charges. Still, this isn’t the first time that Sourth Korean corporate executives have been punished. Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, received a suspended three-year prison term for embezzlement and tax evasion in 2009. The chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, Chung Mong-koo, had received the same sentence for embezzlement and breach of duty in 2007.
Even if the judge decides not to televise the trial live, it will still have an impact.
“In a case such as this, the verdict will be widely publicized, whether televised or not,” said Daniel Kolkey, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who has written about the topic of cameras in the courtroom. “The significance of the verdict will not be altered by the fact that the verdict is shown on the television.”