Lee Jae-yong, May 10, 2022, in Seoul. JEON HEON-KYUN / AFP
Billionaire Lee Jae-yong, who was convicted of corruption and embezzlement last January, received a presidential pardon on Friday, August 12. The heir and de facto boss of the Samsung group will be “reinstated” to “help overcome South Korea’s economic crisis,” said Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon.
This pardon is the latest in a long South Korean tradition of leniency towards big bosses convicted of corruption and other financial crimes.
Mr Lee, 54 – the 278th richest person in the world according to Forbes – was conditionally released in August 2021 after serving 18 months in prison, just over half his original sentence. Friday’s pardon will allow him to fully return to work and lift the court-imposed ban on him serving five years after his sentence.
Also read: Article reserved for our subscribers Lee Jae-yong, CEO of Samsung Electronics, has been paroled
“Due to the global economic crisis, the dynamism and vitality of the national economy has deteriorated, and there are fears that the economic slump will be prolonged,” said a statement from the Ministry of Justice. The latter hopes the businessman can “lead the country’s growth engine by actively investing in technology and creating jobs.”
A turnover equivalent to a fifth of the country’s GDP
Lee Jae-yong was pardoned along with three other businessmen, including Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence in a corruption case in 2018.
Mr. Lee is Vice President of Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest smartphone maker. The conglomerate’s total sales are equivalent to one-fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product. He was jailed for offenses related to a massive corruption scandal that brought down former President Park Geun-hye.
Also read article for our subscribers South Korea divided on pardoning former President Park Geun-hye
It is not uncommon for major South Korean tycoons to be accused of corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other illegal economic activities. But many had their sentences reduced or suspended on appeal, and some – including the late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted twice – were pardoned by the president in recognition of their “contribution to the national economy.”
South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl said Friday the pardons were aimed at improving the lot of “ordinary people affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.” “I hope this special pardon is an opportunity for all South Koreans to work together to overcome the economic crisis,” he added.
Also read the obituary: Samsung boss Lee Kun-hee is dead
A separate lawsuit alleging accounting fraud
Mr. Lee still faces a separate trial for accounting fraud related to a 2015 merger of two Samsung companies. In May, he was excused from attending a hearing in that trial to accommodate US President Joe Biden along with President Yoon. who was traveling in South Korea, especially to visit Samsung’s chip factory.
The pardon granted to Mr. Lee comes after Samsung unveiled a massive investment plan of 450 trillion won over the next five years that aims to make the company a leader in a variety of sectors – from semiconductors to to biologics – to create 80,000 new jobs. The company also employs about 20,000 people in the United States, where a new semiconductor fab is under construction in Texas, due to open in 2024.
The Portrait: Article reserved for our subscribers Lee Jae-yong, a “greenhouse flower” at the helm of Samsung
But the tycoon’s imprisonment hasn’t impacted the performance of the company, which reported a more than 70% increase in profit in the second quarter of last year as the shift to remote work boosted demand for devices powered by its memory chips.