The heir and de facto leader of the Samsung Group was granted a presidential pardon on Friday, the latest example of South Korea’s long tradition of releasing business leaders convicted of corruption on economic grounds.
Billionaire Lee Jae-yong, convicted of bribery and embezzlement in January last year, will be ‘reinstated’ to give him a chance to ‘help overcome the economic crisis’ in the country, the minister has said. Justice Han Dong-hoon.
Lee – the 278th richest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $7.9 billion (about Rs. 63,000 crore) – was released on parole in August 2021, after serving 18 months in prison, just over half of its original sentence.
Friday’s pardon will allow him to return to work fully by lifting a post-prison employment restriction that had been set for five years.
“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,” the justice ministry said in a statement.
The pardon was granted so that Lee – along with other high-level executives granted a pardon on Friday – could ‘steer the country’s engine of continued growth through active investment in technology and job creation’. , the ministry added.
Lee, 54, was pardoned along with three other businessmen, including Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was given a two-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence in a corruption case in 2018.
A total of 1,693 people – including prisoners with terminal illnesses and those nearing the end of their sentences – were on the pardon list, the ministry said, ahead of the annual Liberation Day anniversary. Monday.
The anniversary marks Japan’s surrender in 1945 during World War II, which liberated Korea from decades of colonial rule and is usually celebrated each year with the pardon of hundreds of prisoners.
Above the law?
Lee is the vice president of Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker. The conglomerate’s overall revenue is equivalent to about one-fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product.
He was imprisoned for offenses related to a massive corruption scandal that brought down former president Park Geun-hye.
There is a long history of top South Korean tycoons being accused of bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion or other offences.
But many of those convicted have subsequently had their sentences reduced or suspended on appeal, with some – including the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was sentenced twice – receiving presidential pardons in recognition of their “ contribution to the national economy”.
The giant Samsung Group is by far the largest of the family-controlled empires known as the chaebols that dominate business in South Korea, the world’s 12th largest economy.
President Yoon Suk-yeol said on Friday the pardons were aimed at improving the lot of “ordinary people who have been affected by the protracted Covid-19 pandemic”.
“I hope this special pardon will be an opportunity for all South Koreans to work together to overcome the economic crisis,” he added.
But analysts said the pardons simply allowed big businessmen to feel they were “not constrained by any legal standard”, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University, told AFP. from Oslo.
“And the government is more or less doing its bidding and creating the conditions for corporate capital accumulation,” he added.
No more legal issues
Lee still faces a separate trial on accounting fraud charges relating to the merger of two Samsung companies in 2015.
In May, he was excused from a hearing in that lawsuit to greet US President Joe Biden when he kicked off a tour of South Korea visiting Samsung’s chip factory alongside President Yoon.
His pardon follows Samsung unveiling a massive KRW 450 trillion (about Rs 28 crore) investment plan for the next five years, aimed at making it a leader in a wide range of sectors – from semiconductors to biologics – and create 80,000 new jobs.
The company also employs about 20,000 people in the United States, and work is underway to build a new semiconductor plant in Texas, slated to open in 2024.
But Lee’s imprisonment hasn’t been a dent in the company’s performance – it reported a more than 70% rise in second-quarter profits in July last year, with a shift to remote working driven by the coronavirus, driving demand for devices using its memory chips.
“Samsung worked perfectly without any forgiveness,” Tikhonov told AFP.
“Pardon weakens the rule of law, which is potentially, in fact, more detrimental than beneficial to the operations of any market economy.”