Pardoned Korean tycoon apologises, vows to reform

SEOUL - The head of South Korea's third largest conglomerate apologised Friday after being released from jail on a controversial presidential pardon, vowing to turn over a new leaf and help develop the national economy.

SK Group chairman Chey Tae-Won, who was serving his second jail term for multi-million dollar fraud, was pardoned Thursday - along with thousands of others - by President Park Geun-Hye to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.

It was the second such pardon Chey has received and it sparked criticism of the president, who came to power promising to reform South Korea's all-powerful, family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols." "I sincerely apologise for causing public concern," Chey Tae-Won told reporters as he left a jail north of Seoul shortly after midnight.

"I will do my best for the economic and social development of our nation," Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.

He also vowed to reform corporate governance practise at the SK Group "so that it can be reborn as a corporation beloved by people".

Chaebols dominate the national economy and their chief executives have repeatedly been imprisoned on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

Releasing them with the argument that they can help stimulate economic growth has been a common theme of presidential amnesties over the years.

It was underlined this time around by Justice Minister Kim Hyun-Woong, who said that freeing convicted business leaders gave them "the chance to contribute to the country's economy again".

Aside from Chey, a dozen other businessmen were freed by Park in what was her second amnesty list since taking office in 2013.

Chey, 54, had served 31 months out of his 48-month prison sentence for embezzling 46.5 billion won (S$61.2 million) from two SK Group affiliates and funnelling the funds into personal investments in stock futures and options in 2008.

It was not his first conviction. In 2003, Chey was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a US$1.3 billion accounting fraud.

On that occasion, he was released after just seven months and, in 2008, granted a full presidential pardon, wiping his record clean.