US President Donald Trump talks to Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, second from right, at White House. Courtesy of Lotte Group

Lotte chief meets US President

Seven months ago, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin was in a prison cell less than 7 square meters in size in a detention center near Seoul awaiting the results of an appeal after being found guilty on charges of bribery and embezzlement.

The tycoon, head of the country’s fifth-largest conglomerate, had to eat and sleep alone. He also had to wash his dishes and clothes himself as well as clean his room and bathroom.

And like other prisoners, Shin was allowed to take a shower with hot water just once a week, although he was given a bucket of hot water twice a day, which he could either drink or wash with. Mostly, prisoners use the water to wash.

He was allowed to exercise an hour everyday excluding Sundays and holidays; and could also meet lawyers during weekdays and have one visitor a day for 10 minutes.

Otherwise, he had to spend his time alone in the tiny room. During New Year holidays or Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok) he was stuck in the cell for days.

Shin was in a first-floor room of a three-story building. The first floor was full of cockroaches and was very humid. He would have struggled there,” said an ex-convict who was also held at the detention facility.

Over the Chuseok holidays in late September 2018, he was mired in the small room for four days. It would have been terrible and he would not have ever wanted to return to prison.”

The anonymous source shared his experience of having once seen Shin in his cell.

I saw him a few times through a small hole in the room’s door. Once, he was sitting on two or three blankets reading something that appeared to be a monthly,” the source said.

During the Chuseok holidays in late last September, he would have been very nervous ahead of the appeals court ruling as he had been inside for almost a year.

Shin was imprisoned as part of the huge graft scandal that involved former President Park Geun-hye. A district court sentenced him to 30 months of jail time.

On Oct. 5 2018, a Seoul appellate court released the tycoon by changing his 30-month sentence to one suspended for four years. Although the Supreme Court has yet to make a final decision, he might have heaved a sigh of relief after being set free.

The source said, “Another prisoner said that he heard Shin talk to his lawyer just ahead of the high court ruling. Asked how he felt, Shin said that he was very nervous.”

Going back to management

The 64-year-old businessman returned to management immediately – although his case is still pending at the top court – and came up with many business decisions significant to the future of Lotte.

Included in the decisions was an investment plan of spending $3.1 billion to build a Louisiana chemical plant as part of the group’s international expansion.

And the move prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to invite Shin to the White House where he hosted a meeting with him early this week.

Great to welcome Chairman Shin from Lotte Group to the WH. They just invested $3.1 BILLION into Louisiana – biggest investment in U.S. EVER from a South Korean company, & thousands more jobs for Americans,” Trump said on Twitter.

Great partners like ROK know the U.S. economy is running stronger than ever!”

Shin becomes the first business scion from Korea to meet Trump at White House, an exploit even heads of bigger groups such as Samsung or Hyundai have not achieved.

It could have been a glorious moment for Shin, who had suffered great setbacks over the previous few years.

On top of the criminal charges and imprisonment, he had an ongoing feud with his elder brother, Shin Dong-joo, for control of the group with assets topping $100 billion.

The retails-to-chemicals giant has also been languishing in China after the communist government retaliated against the group for providing land in Korea for a U.S. anti-missile defense system, which Beijing labeled equipment aimed at monitoring its military capabilities.

Going back to jail?

Shin also has the risk of being imprisoned again as the Supreme Court has yet to issue its ruling on his case.

Depending on the top court’s decision, he still runs the risks of being returned to the tiny, humid room filled with cockroaches.

The Supreme Court will in the end decide on the future of Shin and Lotte, although only it knows when this will be.