A South Korean chairman was sentenced to four years imprisonment in what some saw as a breakthrough in the seemingly business elite-ruled country.

The Seoul Western District Court found Kim Seung-youn guilty of embezzlement and he was sentenced to four years in prison with a fine of 5.1 billion won ($4.5 million). According to the Bloomberg news agency, Kim used funds from the Hanwha Group conglomerate to pay debts of companies he owned under false names. Kim was previously convicted of assault in 2008 but was granted a presidential pardon. Kim denied the charges and said he would appeal against the sentence.

This echoes criticisms of South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, who is believed to be a puppet of certain big corporations. Several convicted businessmen have been granted pardons, underlining the “lenient treatment to high-profile white-collar criminals”, reports the Financial Times. Mr. Lee said the pardons are aimed at safeguarding investment in the economy. In his final month of presidency, Lee’s administration was further rocked when his brother, Lee Sang-deuk, was involved in a corruption scandal, for which Mr. Lee issued a public apology.

Kim’s imprisonment underscores the shifting treatment to chaebols – family-owned conglomerates. “The political environment in the run-up to the presidential election has become very anti-chaebol as politicians go after the middle class vote,” North Asia research director, Charles Lee, of the Asian Corporate Governance Association told FT. Ahead of December elections, presidential candidate Park Geun-hye said she would root out corruption and pursue “economic democratization”.