But the ruling could also revive a long-held debate on South Korea's powerful and controversial "chaebol" -- the family-run conglomerates which opponents say have been given special treatment owing to their importance to Asia's fourth-largest economy.
"Hyundai Motor is the top enterprise because of its ripple effect on the whole economy. The accused, Chung Mong-koo, is a symbol of Hyundai Motor and our country's automobile industry," Lee Jae-hong, the presiding judge at the Seoul High Court, said while handing down the sentence.
"I did ask many people, including restaurant waiters, taxi drivers and reporters. The ordinary people leaned toward a suspended sentence," he said. "That means the accused should work hard."
Hyundai Motor shares rose as much as 2.2 percent on the ruling and closed 0.6 percent higher. The broader KOSPI (.KS11: Quote, Profile, Research) ended up 1.2 percent.
Instead of a jail term, Chung was asked to pay an 840 billion won ($894.9 million) donation, previously pledged by the family, to deliver speeches about transparent management and to write essays about governance to be published in domestic media.