April 20, 2018 / 11:38 AM / 7 months ago

South Korea's antitrust chief says expects change in Samsung governance 'in near future'

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s antitrust chief on Friday said he expects Samsung Group to unravel its governance structure in the near future, as the government and investors call for reform of the country’s powerful family-controlled conglomerates, or chaebols.

Employees walks in the building of Samsung Electronics in Seoul, South Korea, February 28, 2017. Picture taken February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Chaebol families have come under increased scrutiny since the arrest last year of Samsung Group heir Jay Y. Lee, who denies wrongdoing, on charges of bribery and embezzlement.

Rekindling public discontent toward chaebol families this month was the investigation of a daughter of the chairman of Korean Air Lines Co Ltd (003490.KS) for allegedly throwing water at an attendee of a business meeting. The investigation comes about three years after another daughter was jailed for berating an employee over incorrectly served nuts.

“Samsung Group has been busy announcing various measures,” changing the way it does business, Kim Sang-jo, head of the Korea Fair Trade Commission, told foreign media.

Kim is popularly known as the “chaebol sniper” for his shareholder activist campaigns before joining the Commission. He has often criticized chaebols for complicated cross-shareholding structures that he has said are aimed at cementing family control.

Speaking of recent changes at the country’s biggest conglomerate, Kim referred to Samsung SDI Co Ltd’s (006400.KS) sale of a stake in affiliate Samsung C&T Corp (028260.KS) to ease cross-shareholding ties, and a Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) unit hiring temporary repair workers as regular staff and recognizing their union.

Kim called the moves “enormous changes”.

“I think Samsung’s most crucial task is to resolve ties between Samsung Life and Samsung Electronics,” said Kim. “In the not too distant future there will be signs of change.”

Samsung Life Insurance Co Ltd (032830.KS) is at heart of a cross-shareholding structure in which it owns about 8 percent of Samsung Electronics.

A Samsung Electronics spokeswoman responsible for Samsung Group-wide issues declined to comment.

Kim’s comments come almost a month after South Korea’s second-biggest chaebol, Hyundai Motor Group, announced a plan to streamline its ownership structure in response to calls for chaebol reform.

“I think Hyundai made the right decision at the right time,” Kim said.

Kim, in an interview with local media this month, said he expects change in Samsung’s corporate governance to begin when Lee’s trials end.

Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, was found guilty but freed in February after an appeals court suspended his prison sentence. The case is currently assigned to the Supreme Court after further appeal.

Reporting by Joyce Lee, Writing by Ju-min Park; Editing by Christopher Cushing

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