SEOUL — Despite the enormous power commonly wielded by Korean tycoons, the chairman of one of the nation"s leading conglomerates was sentenced to 18 months in prison yesterday after being found guilty of leading his bodyguards and a group of gangsters in a violent revenge attack.
In March, Kim Seung-youn, 55, head of the Hanwha Group, orchestrated a rampage after a fight at a karaoke lounge in ritzy southern Seoul during which his son, a student at Yale University, was hit by an off-duty bar worker and had to get 11 stitches.
The enraged father unleashed his bodyguards and recruited a group of local gangsters. They tracked down his son"s assailants and packed them off to a mountain outside Seoul, where they assaulted them with fists, feet and steel pipes. During the beatings, Kim reportedly bellowed: "Do you know who you are dealing with?"
The victims originally declined to come forward with their story, for fear of the businessman"s power. They only went public when a major local newspaper reported their story.
The police probe of the incident was so slow that the presidential office ordered a "thorough investigation." It has since been found that several high-ranking officers were bribed to cover up the case, prompting the resignation of Seoul"s police commissioner.
Meanwhile, the gangster boss who assisted Kim in his assault is thought to be in hiding abroad.
Stories of previous assaults surfaced during the investigation; Kim is also accused of smashing a bottle over the head of a bar waitress who he thought was not acting respectfully enough.
After first denying all charges, Kim later changed tack and made a public apology.
Detained since May, he reached an out-of-court financial settlement with his victims in June, but state prosecutors pressed charges of abduction and assault.
Mr. Kim is no stranger to a courtroom, having been convicted in 1993 of violating foreign-currency regulations and in 2003 of bribing politicians. But he managed to avoid any serious consequences. Hanwha has retained South Korea"s top law firm but has not decided whether to appeal.
Hanwha is one of South Korea"s biggest industrial groups, with interests in petrochemicals, finance and insurance; it also owns the nation"s most luxurious department store and a baseball team. Kim, the son of the group"s founder, with a personal wealth estimated at more than $1 billion is known as "Firecracker Kim" in some circles: Hanwha"s original business was explosives.
Given the practice of South Korean companies, where loyalty to chairmen is customarily prized over responsibility to shareholders, Hanwha has surprised nobody by firmly supporting its disgraced chairman. Asked whether Hanwha stood by him, spokesman Ju Cheol-beom said, "Sure."
In a petition to prosecutors last month, the heads of the nation's five leading business associations requested leniency for Kim, in the interest of stable operations at Hanwha.
"That has been the culture, because so many chairmen have been indicted and found guilty," said Jang Ha-sung, dean of Korea University"s business school. "But at least the court sentenced him to jail. That is different. In the past, courts have been lenient."
Conglomerate chairmen have traditionally avoided detention by stressing their importance to the national economy. Currently, South Korea"s top two business groups are both under a judicial shadow.
Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo was convicted of creating a $100 million slush fund in February. Prosecutors have demanded a six-year sentence, though few expect him to do time. He remains free.