This past February, an appeals court in Korea affirmed a lower court decision to reject a prosecution’s theory of what it means to be a “foreign official” under Korea’s version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, called the Act on Preventing Bribery of Foreign Public Officials (“FBPA”). This was the first case brought by prosecutors under the FBPA with allegations that an executive of a state-controlled company was a “foreign official.” Prosecutors have appealed to the Korean Supreme Court, and the high court’s decision could be an important signal as to how aggressively prosecutors can pursue future cases under the FBPA. 

In 2011, Korean prosecutors brought FBPA charges against two individuals – executives at a shipping company and a travel agency – for allegedly bribing the president of the Korean subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines to secure improper business advantages. Prosecutors argued that the Korean president of China Eastern Airlines was a “foreign official” and pointed to documents that allegedly linked the company to the Chinese government. 

The lower court acknowledged the evidence suggesting a connection with the Chinese government, but found that prosecutors had not met their burden in proving that the China Eastern executive was a “foreign official” under the FBPA. The Korean prosecutors appealed and directed the appellate court to additional pieces of evidence support its theory, including the facts that the Chinese government: (1) through a wholly-owned subsidiary, owned more than 50% of China Eastern’s capital; (2) had appointment and dismissal power over China Eastern’s CEO; (3) was in charge of certain business decisions of China Eastern, including mergers and spin-off decisions; and (4) provides China Eastern with large amounts of government subsidies. 

Despite that evidence, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision without further elaboration. The case has been appealed to the Korean Supreme Court. We will continue to monitor developments and provide an update once this decision has been announced. 

Like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Korean FBPA defines “foreign official” to include employees of certain state-owned or state-controlled companies. Under Article 2(2)(c) of the FBPA, the term “foreign official” includes:

[A]n executive or employee of a company in which a foreign government contributed more than 50% of the paid-in-capital or with respect to which a foreign government exercises de facto control over its overall management including major business decisions and the appointment or dismissal of its executives.

Interestingly, at the same time the Korean Supreme Court wrestles with the limits of defining “foreign official” when it comes to state-owned or controlled companies, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is currently considering a similar issue in U.S. v. Esquenazi, a case that is slated for oral arguments in October.