South Korea’s Jailed Samsung Leader Goes Free in Latest Advance Release for Business Elite

The jailed de facto leader of the giant Samsung group was paroled on Friday, the latest example in South Korea’s long tradition of freeing business leaders jailed for corruption or tax evasion on economic grounds.

Lee Jae-yong, the 202 richest person in the world according to Forbes, with a net worth of $ 11.4 billion, was serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence imposed in January for bribery, embezzlement and other crimes in connection with the corruption scandal that toppled former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

But calls for his early release from both politicians and business leaders grew in recent months over what they said was a possible leadership vacuum at the South’s largest conglomerate.

The Justice Ministry announced Monday that he had been released on parole, among around 800 anticipated releases, citing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.

Lee, 53, bowed to reporters waiting outside a detention center south of Seoul and told them, “I have caused people too much concern. I am so sorry.”

Wearing a black suit, he added, “I listen carefully to your concerns, criticisms, concerns and high expectations of me. I will do my best,” before being taken away in a black limousine.

Lee was first jailed for five years in 2017, after Park’s impeachment, and then went free the following year when an appeals court dismissed most of his bribery convictions and gave him a suspended sentence.

But the Supreme Court later ordered Lee to face a new trial, which convicted and re-imprisoned him.

His probation is not the end of his legal tribulations: he remains on trial for an alleged stock manipulation that effectively paved the way for him to take control of the family conglomerate, the very purpose for which he was convicted of bribing Park.

Song Won-keun, an economics professor at Gyeongsang National University, told AFP: “This is certainly preferential treatment, especially since a separate trial is still being conducted.”

There is a long history of leading South Korean tycoons charged with bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion or other crimes.

But many of those convicted subsequently had their sentences cut or suspended on appeal, and some, including Lee’s father, the late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted twice, received presidential pardons in recognition of their “contribution to the government”. national economy “.

The presidential Blue House insisted that Lee’s parole was a decision “made in the national interest.”

“We hope fellow citizens can understand too,” a Blue House official told reporters.

Is wealth a factor?

According to data from the Justice Ministry, only about 0.3 percent of all convicts who were released on parole between 2011 and 2020 served less than 70 percent of their jail terms.

But a rule change recently went into effect that lowered the proportion of sentences inmates must serve before being eligible for parole to 60 percent, a mark Lee approved a few weeks ago.

The giant Samsung group is by far the largest of the family-controlled empires known as chaebols that dominate business in South Korea, the world’s twelfth-largest economy.

Its flagship subsidiary, Samsung Electronics, where Lee is vice president, is the world’s largest smartphone maker.

A company spokeswoman declined to comment on his release.

Lee’s incarceration hasn’t been a barrier to the company’s performance – it announced a more than 70 percent increase in second-quarter earnings last month, and coronavirus-fueled work-from-home increased demand for devices. that use their memory chips.

Chaebol families often have only a small ownership stake in their empires, but maintain control through complex networks of cross-stakeholder ownership.

Lee vowed last year to end the family line of succession at the firm, saying that he would not pass his role on to his children as he bowed to apologize for multiple controversies.

Regardless of the controversies, the leaders of the country’s four major conglomerates – SK Group, Hyundai Motor Group, LG Group and Samsung – met with President Moon Jae-in in June to pressure him to pardon Lee.

Polls also showed a growing number of South Koreans in favor of granting him parole, supported by more than 66 percent of respondents in a recent Realmeter poll.

But Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo, took a different view.

“Releasing him does not follow routine law enforcement practice and suggests that his wealth could have been a factor,” he told AFP.

“This is a departure from the idea that everyone is equal before the law.”


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