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July 17, 2024

Kakao's legal risk intensifies over alleged stock manipulation

PUBLISHED : July 09, 2024 - 16:29

UPDATED : July 09, 2024 - 16:29

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Kim Beom-su, founder of Kakao Corp., enters the Seoul Financial Supervisory Service on Oct. 23. (Newsis)

Kim Beom-su, the founder of tech giant Kakao Corp., the operator of South Korea's top mobile messenger, was summoned by prosecutors Tuesday to address allegations of stock price manipulation related to Kakao's acquisition of K-pop megacorp SM Entertainment last year.

The Financial Investigation Division 2 of the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors' Office called in Kim earlier in the day and said it was investigating him for alleged violations of the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act.

Kim was appearing before the prosecution for the first time in eight months after the Financial Supervisory Service transferred the case to the prosecution and suggested the law enforcement agency indict Kim.

The tech mogul reportedly appeared behind closed doors and away from reporters. It was not until 8:10 a.m. that prosecutors announced Kim's summons, which is unusual for prosecutors to call in a high-profile figure so early in the morning.

The investigation focuses on allegations that Kakao and its executives manipulated SM stock prices amid a bidding war with Hybe, the parent company of BTS' management agency BigHit. This intense competition culminated in Kakao's victory in February last year. Kim is being questioned for his suspected role in inflating SM shares.

Accusations suggest that SM shares were artificially driven above 120,000 won ($86.73) per share — the fixed price at which Hybe was purchasing shares from investors. Hybe had initially acquired a 14.8 percent stake in SM from its founder Lee Soo-man and offered to buy additional shares from small shareholders at the same price. However, the significant rise in SM's share price led Hybe to withdraw its takeover bid.

In March last year, Kakao and its subsidiary Kakao Entertainment secured a controlling 39.87 percent stake in SM Entertainment.

Prosecutors allege that Kakao spent 240 billion won ($73 million) on SM shares, purchasing them at prices higher than Hybe's tender offer on 553 occasions in mid-to-late February last year, intending to thwart Hybe's bid.

Previously, prosecutors indicted Kakao's chief investment officer Bae Jae-hyun and the company on charges of stock manipulation, along with the head of a private equity fund involved in the case. These indictments followed the Financial Supervisory Service's referral of Kim, Bae and several other Kakao executives to the prosecution for further investigation last year.

If Kakao Corporation is sentenced to more than a fine for alleged market manipulation of SM Entertainment, it could lose its status as a major shareholder in Kakao Bank, the internet-only bank in which it holds a 27.17 percent stake.

Financial and legal experts anticipate that the prosecution is likely to bring Kakao Corporation to trial under joint punishment regulations.

By Choi Jeong-yoon (jychoi@heraldcorp.com)

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