SKorea’s Lotte owners go on trial for graft

- Agence France-Presse, SEOUL

Mar 21, 2017-

Four members of the family who control South Korea’s troubled retail giant Lotte, including its 93-year-old founder, went on trial Monday for embezzlement, tax evasion and fraud.

The proceedings against company chairman Shin Dong-Bin, 61, his brother, sister and father—plus the patriarch’s mistress nearly 40 years his junior—come as the South’s fifth-biggest conglomerate endures a barrage of condemnation from China.

The company provided land to Seoul to host a US missile defence system, infuriating Beijing, and nearly 90 percent of its Chinese Lotte Mart stores have since been forced to close by either authorities or angry demonstrations.

The trial is the latest blow to the reputations of the family-controlled conglomerates, or “chaebols”, that powered South Korea’s economic growth in past decades.

More recently they have increasingly become the focus of public anger over inequality and corruption, as in the scandal that saw president Park Geun-Hye removed from office earlier this month.

Lotte chairman Shin is accused of costing the firm 175 billion won ($155 million) through a series of tax evasions, financial scams and irregularities. He has been also charged with negligence for awarding lucrative deals or paying “wages” worth millions of dollars to relatives who made little contribution to management.

“I am sorry for causing concern. I will cooperate with the trial sincerely,” Shin told reporters, bowing briefly before entering the courtroom Monday afternoon.

Similar charges were levelled against his older brother Shin Dong-Joo, his older sister Shin Young-Ja, as well as their father Shin Kyuk-Ho.

The nonagenarian arrived in court in a wheelchair, a grey blanket over his legs, but left after about 30 minutes due to health reasons.

His 57-year-old mistress was also accused of embezzlement for pocketing large sums in “wages” although she had little role in management.

It was the first public appearance by former actress and model Seo Mi-Kyung after decades spent trying to avoid media attention.

Each of the five, who were formally indicted by prosecutors in October, denied all the charges against them, which are not directly connected to the scandal that brought down Park. The Seoul-based Lotte group, founded in Tokyo in 1948, has a vast network of businesses in South Korea and Japan with combined assets valued at more than $90 billion.  The decision by Seoul to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) system to guard against threats from the nuclear-armed North angered China, which fears it would undermine its own military capabilities.

The first parts of the THAAD system arrived in the South two weeks ago after Lotte signed a land swap deal to provide a golf course in the southern county of Seongju to host the missile batteries.

Since then officials have shut down dozens of Lotte retail stores in China, ostensibly over “safety issues” as angry protestors hold demonstrations across China denouncing the group and other South Korean businesses. Lotte, focused on food, retail and hotel businesses, has invested more than $8 billion in its Chinese operations and has more than 120 outlets in the country, with 26,000 local employees. The Shin family became targets of state probes after 2015 when a bitter and very public fight between the two brothers for control of the group fanned public anger over how the South’s dominant family-run conglomerates conduct their business affairs.

Published: 21-03-2017 10:40

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