Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong — known in the West as Jay Y. Lee — has won a presidential pardon by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, allowing the grandson of Samsung’s founder to resume leadership of the powerful conglomerate, Bloomberg reports. The pardon will be formalized on August 15th.
The presidential pardon is reminiscent of the two given to Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted of corruption and tax evasion in 1996 and 2008.
“In a bid to overcome the economic crisis by revitalizing the economy, Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong, whose suspended prison term ended recently, will be reinstated,” the South Korean government said in a statement reported by the Financial Times.
The pardon is the latest turn in a bribery scandal that dates back to 2017, when Lee was accused of bribing then-President Park Geun-hye. The Samsung heir was initially sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of corruption but served less than one year of his sentence before being released on appeal. He was subsequently reimprisoned in January 2021 before being released again in August that year on parole. In total, he served a year and a half of his 30-month sentence.
"“Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong ... will be reinstated”"
A presidential pardon is important because it opens the door to Lee retaking the helm of the tech giant founded by his grandfather, Lee Byung-Chul. Under Korean law, convicted criminals are barred from holding formal positions at a company like Samsung for five years following their conviction. Bloomberg reports that Lee has continued to receive reports from the company without having an official title.
Samsung currently doesn’t have anyone serving as its chairman after Lee Kun-hee died in October 2020. But Bloomberg notes that the pardon opens the door for Lee to return and push through major strategic decisions that are arguably necessary as the chaebol struggles with inflation, the instability caused by the war in Ukraine, supply chain problems created by China’s COVID lockdowns, and complications resulting from escalating US-China relations.
Lee’s formal return to the company is seen as a potential source of stability, not to mention a potentially politically popular one. As the Associated Press noted last year, around 5 million people in South Korea own shares in Samsung, leading to widespread support for Lee’s release from prison. But critics say that the pardon is endemic of a cozy relationship between Korea’s business and political elite that verges on the corrupt, the Financial Times notes.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to start anew. I am sorry for causing concern to many people,” Lee said in a statement. “I will try harder to give back to society and grow together.” But the businessman’s legal troubles are far from over given he still faces separate stock manipulation charges in relation to a merger of two Samsung subsidiaries.