SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye announced criminal pardons for 6,500 people Thursday, including the head of the country's third largest conglomerate currently serving his second jail term for multi-million dollar fraud.
The inclusion of SK Group chairman Chey Tae-Won is likely to trigger criticism of Park, who came to power promising to reform South Korea's all-powerful, family run conglomerates, whose chief executives have often strayed onto the wrong side of the law.
"I decided to grant special pardons in order to help forge national reconciliation and revitalise the economy", Park said at a government cabinet meeting in reference to the pardon granted ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.
Justice Minister Kim Hyun-Woong told journalists that businessmen were pardoned "to help bolster the economy by giving them chances to contribute to the country's economy".
Aside from Chey, a dozen other less-known businessmen were also among the beneficiaries from the pardon, a second since Park took office in February 2013.
South Korea's family-oriented business conglomerates or chaebol, including the top three - Samsung, Hyundai and SK - have all been repeatedly entangled with corruption scandals.
However, their leaders have customarily been pardoned or released on parole because of their past economic contributions and potential future investments.
As a 2012 presidential election promise, Park vowed to depart from these practices and be stringent in pardoning corrupt business tycoons.
Last month, the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), a powerful lobbying group for conglomerates, issued a statement urging Park to issue special pardons to convicted businessmen to help bolster the sagging economy.
Chey, 54, has served 31 months out of his 48-month prison sentence for embezzling 46.5 billion won (S$55.3 million) from two SK Group affiliates and funnelling the funds into personal investments in stock futures and options in 2008.
It was not Chey's first conviction. In 2003, he was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion) accounting fraud but was released after just seven months and, in 2008, was granted a full presidential pardon, wiping his record clean.
An opinion poll by Korea Gallop last month showed 54 percent of the 1,003 people surveyed were opposed to giving pardons to chaebol leaders, while 33 percent of the respondents were in favour.