Samsung's de facto leader, imprisoned for bribery, will be paroled

SEOUL (NYTIMES) – Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of the sprawling Samsung conglomerate who was imprisoned for bribery, will be released on parole on Friday, the Ministry of Justice of South Korea said Monday.

The ministry’s parole committee met on Monday and decided to free Lee and 800 other prisoners ahead of the Aug 15 National Liberation Day, which commemorates the end of Japanese colonial rule of Korea at the end of World War II. South Korea often paroles or pardons prisoners to mark major national holidays.

Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was serving a 21/2-year prison term for bribing former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and ousted from office for corruption and abuse of power.

As vice-chairman of Samsung, Lee has been running the conglomerate since a heart attack incapacitated his father, Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, in 2014. His father died in October, and Lee is his only son.

Samsung is the biggest and most lucrative of a handful of family controlled conglomerates, or chaebol, that helped South Korea transform from a war-torn agrarian economy into a global export powerhouse. The group’s electronics unit, Samsung Electronics, alone accounts for nearly one-fifth of the country’s total exports.

But South Koreans have also grown weary of recurring corruption scandals among the chaebol. Lee’s father was twice convicted of bribery and other corruption charges, but never spent a day in jail, leading many to believe that Samsung was untouchable.

South Koreans have been divided over whether Lee was worth paroling.

Outside the Justice Ministry, where the parole committee met Monday, activists opposed Lee’s parole, holding signs that said letting him walk without serving out his prison term would be another example of excessive leniency towards business tycoons convicted of corruption.

Ahead of Lee’s parole, the Justice Ministry had said it would make it easier for prisoners with good behaviour to apply for parole. Until now, it had been rare for the ministry to parole inmates who have served less than 70 per cent of their terms. Lee has finished serving 60 per cent of the term, and critics accused the ministry of amending its parole guidelines in his favour.

But a majority of South Koreans supported Lee’s early release from prison, according to recent surveys. Other business tycoons, pro-business lobbies and even some of the politicians campaigning for the presidential election in March have called for Lee’s release.

“We included vice-chairman Lee in the list of people who would be paroled, taking into account the national and global economic condition amid the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic,”  Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said on Monday.

Samsung is run by an army of professional managers. But those who supported Lee’s parole argued that his imprisonment had created uncertainty at a time when the South Korean tech giant needed to make bold investments and acquisitions amid a global chip shortage.

Local media has added to public anxiety by reporting that with Lee locked away, Samsung was postponing key strategic decisions, including the location of a US$17 billion (S$23.1 billion) chip plant in the United States, while rival chipmakers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and Intel were making large investments.

But it was unclear how actively Lee could be involved in Samsung management after he was paroled. He had been banned on returning to work for five years, and the Justice Ministry did not lift that ban.

Lee also faces other legal trouble. He is on trial on separate criminal charges of stock price manipulation and unfair trading. Lee has said that he is innocent.

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