The Korea Herald


How will SK chief's W1.3tr divorce settlement affect his ownership?

By Jo He-rim

Published : May 31, 2024 - 16:13

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SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won (left) and his estranged wife Roh So-yeong (Yonhap) SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won (left) and his estranged wife Roh So-yeong (Yonhap)

The high-profile divorce settlement ruling ordering SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won to pay his ex-wife a record 1.38 trillion won ($1 billion) has commanded attention for how the chaebol chief will raise the cash as well as the possible impact the ruling could have on the shareholding structure of the nation’s second-largest conglomerate.

The Seoul High Court on Thursday ordered Chey to pay 1.38 trillion won in property division and 2 billion won in a one-off alimony payment to his estranged wife Roh Soh-yeong. It is the largest divorce settlement in South Korean history.

The court found SK shares held by Chey to be subject to property division. It ordered him to pay in cash.

Chey’s legal team immediately said it would appeal to the Supreme Court. Because it takes about two to three years for the highest court to deliver a ruling, he may have gained time to secure some amount of cash, but he also would face interest on the delayed payment.

The SK chief is the largest shareholder of SK Inc., the group’s holding company that controls key affiliates such as SK Innovation, SK Telecom, SK Square, SKC, SK Networks and SK Ecoplant. Considering shares owned by those with special relations, including his family members, he has secured a total of 25.87 percent of favorable shares in SK Inc.

Many industry watchers agree that Chey would be reluctant to shed any shares in the group’s key affiliates, citing his struggles in a proxy battle against Sovereign Asset Management in the early 2000s.

In August 2003, the Monaco-based asset management firm sought to oust Chey and take over his management rights by securing up to 15 percent of shares. Chey held onto his position after winning a vote of confidence in the general shareholders meeting the following year.

“Chey would not abandon his SK shares after he learned a painful lesson in his battle against Sovereign,” said Park Ju-geun, head of corporate tracker Leaders Index. “The only way left is getting a loan.”

But Chey has already used about half of his SK Inc. shares as collateral for funding worth 400 billion won. Sources say it seems inevitable for him to sell some shares in other SK companies such as SK Siltron, a semiconductor wafer maker acquired from LG in 2017.

“SK Siltron could seek a stock listing to help Chey secure cash. But the whole process could face heightened social scrutiny, affecting the group’s brand image negatively,” an industry source said on condition of anonymity.

“Even if he sells off some shares in SK Siltron, he would need more than 600 billion to 800 billion won in cash. It would be inevitable for him to sell more stakes,” said Oh Il-sun, director of Korea CXO Institute.

Following Thursday’s ruling, SK Inc. shares soared, reflecting market expectations that the divorce settlement could prompt the company to boost shareholder benefits, including heightened dividends.

On Friday, SK Inc. shares closed at 18,100 won, up 11.45 percent from the previous day. It was a 21 percent jump over the past two days alone. During the same period, its preferred shares saw 41 percent growth, as the owners can claim priority when the company pays dividends even though they have no voting rights.

In the meantime, Roh repeated her intention to keep her distance from the group’s management.

“Roh has no intention to shake up SK Group’s ownership structure,” her legal representative said in a statement Thursday. “Her shares will remain favorable shares for SK.”