Ex-President Park Geun-hye's longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for bribery, influence-peddling and extortion.
The sentence came 15 months after Choi was indicted for pressuring big businesses to pay W77.4 billion into the bogus Mir and K-Sports foundations she set up under the Cheong Wa Dae aegis (US$1=W1,086).
The Seoul Central District Court convicted Choi of 16 of the 18 criminal charges against her. It also fined her W18 billion fine and ordered her to forfeit W72.9 billion of her ill-gotten gains. It was the heaviest sentence yet pronounced for a defendant in the massive influence-peddling and corruption scandal that brought Park down but still lighter than the 25 years prosecutors had asked for.
Choi left the courtroom without comment after the sentence was delivered.
The court found her guilty of all 11 charges that involve Park and named Park as an accomplice in the crimes, so legal experts predict a harsh sentence for the ex-president when her trial ends next month.
"It appears the conglomerates had little to benefit from Choi's foundations," the court said. "Judging from that, the court must rule that their contributions were the result of coercion by the former president at Choi's request."
"Park's Cheong Wa Dae was the main agent in the establishment of the foundations," it added, rejecting the defendants' argument that the racket was a philanthropic undertaking the two women barely knew anything about.
Choi had been charged among other things with taking W43.3 billion in bribes from Samsung, but the court only accepted that W7.3 billion paid to support her daughter's equestrian training was a straight-up bribe. The decision echoes an appeals court ruling in the bribery trial of Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong.
Presiding judge Kim Se-yoon said, "Government was thrown into chaos due to Choi's extensive meddling, which resulted in the unprecedented impeachment of the president. The main culprits in the influence-peddling scandal are the former president, who abandoned her duties and abused her constitutional authority to allow a private citizen to meddle in state affairs, and Choi, who benefited from these abuses."
Choi was already sentenced to three years in jail by an appeals court last November for using her connections to pressure Ewha Womans University into admitting her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. If the Supreme Court upholds the sentence, this will be added to the 20 years.
Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was sentenced on the same day, got two-and-a-half years behind bars and was fined W7 billion for bribing Park and Choi by donating W7 billion to the K-Sports foundation in exchange for duty-free licenses. The judge said Shin's action "disadvantaged other businesses that tried legitimately to obtain business licenses."
Former Park aide An Chong-bum, who was the go-between in the two women's extortion racket, was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to forfeit W42.9 million.
Choi Soon-sil, Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin and former presidential secretary An Chong-bum arrive at the Seoul Central District Court on Tuesday, in this composite photo. /Yonhap
Choi Soon-sil leaves the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Tuesday.