The heir and de facto leader of the Samsung group received a presidential pardon Friday, continuing South Korea’s long tradition of freeing 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 “contribute to overcoming the economic crisis” of the country, justice minister Han Dong-hoon said.
Friday’s pardon will allow him to fully return to work by lifting a post-prison employment restriction that had been set for five years.
The pardon was given so that Lee — as well as other high-level executives receiving pardons Friday — could “lead the country’s continuous growth engine through active investment in technology and job creation,” it added.
A total of 1,693 people — including prisoners with terminal illnesses and those near the end of their terms — were on the pardon list, the ministry said, ahead of the annual Liberation Day anniversary Monday.
Lee, 54, issued a statement after the pardon was announced saying he aimed to “contribute to the economy through continuous investment and job creation for young people.”
Lee is the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest smartphone maker. The conglomerate’s overall turnover is equivalent to about one-fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product.
There is a long history of South Korean tycoons being charged with bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion or other offenses.
The giant Samsung group is by far the largest of the family-controlled empires known as chaebol that dominate business in South Korea.
But analysts said they simply allowed major businessmen to feel they were not “constrained by any legal norms”, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.
Justice minister Han said all politicians were excluded this time as the economy is the most “urgent and important” issue.
– More legal woes –
In May, he was excused from a hearing in that trial to host US President Joe Biden when he kicked off a tour of South Korea by visiting Samsung’s chip plant, alongside President Yoon.
But Lee’s imprisonment has been no barrier to the firm’s performance — it announced a surge of more than 70 percent in second-quarter profits in July last year, with a coronavirus-driven shift to remote work boosting demand for devices using its memory chips.
“The pardon weakens the rule of law, which potentially is, in fact, more detrimental than advantageous.”