Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s De Facto Leader, is pardoned

SEOUL — President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday pardoned Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of the Samsung conglomerate, who was serving prison time after being convicted of bribing one of Mr. Yoon’s predecessors.

Mr. Lee was released on parole last August. The pardon gives him a free hand to lead Samsung because it ends what had been a five-year ban on his return to management. But many South Korean business analysts believe that Mr. Lee had continued to control his empire through loyal subordinates, although Samsung has never explicitly confirmed this.

Mr. Lee was one of nearly 1,700 people pardoned by Mr. Yoon on Friday, most of whom had been convicted of white-collar crimes and traffic violations. South Korean presidents often issue mass pardons to mark major holidays, such as National Liberation Day, which falls on the Monday when the pardons take effect.

“I hope that this special pardon will be an occasion for the people to gather their strength to help overcome the economic crisis,” said Mr. Yoon during a cabinet meeting on Friday. He said many small business owners had been among those pardoned.

Samsung is the most successful of the handful of family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebol, that helped make South Korea a global export powerhouse and still dominate the economy. Its Samsung Electronics unit alone accounts for nearly one-sixth of the country’s total exports.

Mr. Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was convicted of bribing then-President Park Geun-hye to obtain state aid for a merger of two Samsung subsidiaries. Ms. Park was impeached in 2016 on this bribery and other corruption charges and eventually went to prison herself before being pardoned and released in December.

Mr. Lee was in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year sentence when he was paroled last year. Another tycoon, Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin. received a suspended prison sentence on charges related to Ms. Park, and was also pardoned on Friday by Mr. Yoon, who promised a business-friendly government as a presidential candidate earlier this year.

Mr. Yoon, a former prosecutor, was a leading member of the investigative team whose work led to the conviction of Mr. Lee and Mr. Shin.

In South Korea, there is a long history of chaebol executives being convicted of graft-related crimes and later receiving presidential pardons, usually on the grounds that the country needs them. Anti-corruption activists have long argued that such pardons help entrench corruption in South Korean politics.

An opposition lawmaker, Park Yong-jin, said on Friday that Mr. Yoon had confirmed the widespread belief that “you are free if you are rich, but guilty if you are poor.”

But business groups have lobbied tirelessly for such pardons, arguing that the economy benefits when chaebol leaders are free to run their empires. Recent public opinion polls showed that a majority of South Koreans supported a pardon for Mr. Lee. In recent days, Mr. Yoon has seen his approval ratings fall below 30 percent, an unusually poor performance for a South Korean leader so early in office.

Although Mr. Lee’s title is vice chairman, he began running South Korea’s largest and most lucrative conglomerate in 2014 when his father, Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s chairman, was incapacitated by a heart attack. The eldest Mr. Lee died in 2020.

“I am truly grateful for this opportunity to start fresh,” said Mr. Lee on Friday in a statement released through Samsung. “I will respond to the public’s expectations and the government’s considered consideration by contributing to the economy through ongoing investment and job creation for young people.”

South Korea has faced increasing uncertainty about its economy and national security, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, the growing tensions between the US and China over Taiwan and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons threat.

South Korean news media said the pardon could encourage Mr. Lee to succeed his late father as chairman of Samsung and to more actively address the challenges the company faces at a time when the global chip industry is struggling to address supply shortages caused in part by the Covid pandemic.

Samsung, a global leader in the chip industry, must also deal with US pressure on South Korea to join a US-led semiconductor supply chain alliance and with increasing competition from China, which is investing aggressively in its own semiconductor industry.

Mr. Lee’s legal troubles are not over. He is facing separate criminal charges of stock price manipulation and unfair trading. Mr. Lee has said he is innocent.

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