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(LEAD) Finance minister voices support for pardoning convicted biz leaders to help economy

All Headlines 16:38 September 25, 2014

(ATTN: ADDS more comments from para 6)

SEJONG, Sept. 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's top economic policymaker on Thursday expressed his full support for the justice minister's recent controversial remark that the government needs to consider pardoning business leaders convicted of crimes in order to help boost the persistently slowing economy.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said in an interview with a local newspaper that the government needs to seriously think about freeing or pardoning convicted CEOs if it can help turn the economy around.

After his remarks sparked controversy, the justice ministry later clarified that its stance on fair law enforcement remains unchanged and no preferential treatment will be granted to business leaders.

"I agree with Hwang's opinion. Of course, businesspeople also should be punished for violating laws, but it would not be helpful in reviving the economy if the laws are enforced too strictly just because they are business leaders," Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan told reporters here.

"At a time like now when economic recovery is slowing due to sluggish corporate investment, I completely share the view expressed by a person no other than the justice minister who is in charge of law enforcement," he added.

Such back-to-back comments immediately raised speculation that the government is considering amnesty for CEOs who are in prison or standing trial, including the chiefs of SK Group and CJ Group.

SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won is in jail after being sentenced to a four-year prison term for embezzling billions of won of company money. CJ Group Chairman Lee Jay-hyun was sentenced to 3 years in prison by an appeals court for creating slush funds and is awaiting a final ruling.

Pardoning of CEOs has always been controversial in South Korea, with critics charging that they get away with only a slap on the wrist using their wealth as protection.

Reacting to the justice minister's comments, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy said Hwang is officially suggesting the rich should be above the law.

"We cannot tolerate his remarks, especially coming from a justice minister," the party said.

On economic issues, the finance minister dismissed worries that the government's expansionary stimulus policy would have a negative impact on the economy in the longer term, saying that it will eventually create a virtuous cycle that helps economic recovery, which in turn will help the government bring in more revenue.

As for concerns that he is too focused on expansionary measures to revive the economy, the minister said that he will push for structural reforms once he has confidence that the economy has regained full health. He likened the Korean economy to a "patient" who needs a surgery.

"A patient needs to become healthy before having a surgery," he said. "(Those stimulus measures that I have unveiled over the past few months) are also aimed at helping the economy regain its health. To enhance our economic potential, we need structural reforms."


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