The heir and de facto leader of the Samsung group received a presidential pardon on Friday, an example of South Korea’s long-standing tradition of freeing business leaders convicted of financially motivated corruption.
Billionaire Lee Jae-yong, convicted of bribery and embezzlement in January 2021, will be “reinstated” to give him a chance to “contribute to overcoming South Korea’s economic crisis,” Justice Minister Han Dong-yong said. hoon.
Lee, ranked 278th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people with a net worth of $7.9 billion, was paroled in August 2021, after serving 18 months in jail, just over the half of his original sentence.
The pardon announced this Friday will allow him to fully return to work by lifting a five-year work restriction imposed after his release from prison.
“Due to the global economic crisis, the dynamism and vitality of the national economy have deteriorated and a prolongation of the economic recession is feared,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.
Lee’s pardon and that of other similarly pardoned executives is intended to “lead the country’s continued growth engine through active investment in technology and job creation,” it added.
The 54-year-old tycoon received his pardon along with three other businessmen, including Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year suspended prison term in a bribery case in 2018.
In all, the ministry announced 1,693 pardons on the occasion of the anniversary Monday of Liberation Day, which marks Japan’s 1945 surrender that ended decades of colonial power in Korea.
A pardon was also expected for former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), imprisoned for corruption, but the Justice Minister said politicians were excluded because the economy is “the most urgent and important thing.”
– Feeling of impunity –
In a statement, the Samsung leader said he wanted to “contribute to the economy through continued investment and job creation for young people.”
Lee Jae-yong is vice president of Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest smartphone maker with a turnover equal to a fifth of South Korea’s Gross Domestic Product.
He was jailed for crimes related to a massive corruption scandal that brought down former president Park Geun-hye.
South Korea has a long history of top tycoons accused of bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion and other crimes, though many end with pardons, suspended or reduced sentences.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said he hopes “this special pardon will serve as an opportunity for all South Koreans to work together to overcome the economic crisis.”
But analysts like Vladimir Tikhonov, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, say this allows entrepreneurs to feel “they are not restricted by any law.”
Lee still has another lawsuit pending for alleged accounting fraud during the merger of two firms in the conglomerate in 2015.
These legal problems and Lee’s imprisonment have not slowed the performance of Samsung, which announced a 70% increase in profits in the second quarter thanks to the chip market, fueled by the pandemic and the boom in remote work.
“Samsung has operated perfectly well without any reprieve,” Tikhonov said. “The pardon weakens the rule of law, which is potentially more detrimental than advantageous for operations in any market economy.”