SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Samsung’s de facto chief on Friday won a pardon for his conviction for bribing a former president in a corruption scandal that toppled South Korea’s previous government, an act of leniency that underscored the technology company’s immense influence in the nation.
Lee Jae-yong’s pardon is partly symbolic because he was released on parole a year ago after serving 18 months in prison that was due to end in July, and critics say the billionaire has maintained control of Samsung even while behind bars. Still, the pardon would allow the electronics heir to fully resume its management duties and could make it easier for the company to invest and merge.
The Justice Ministry said President Yoon Suk-yeol, who as a prosecutor has been investigating a corruption scandal involving Lee, will announce the pardon on Monday, a national holiday when about 1,700 people are to be pardoned, including other top business leaders.
Lee, 54, was convicted in 2017 of bribing former President Park Geun-hye and her close confidant to gain government support for a merger of two Samsung affiliates that strengthened Lee’s control over the corporate empire. Park and a confidant were also convicted in the scandal, which has angered South Koreans who have staged mass protests for months demanding an end to shady ties between business and politics. The demonstrations eventually led to Park’s removal from office.
While some civic groups have criticized the decision, recent opinion polls have shown that South Koreans — years removed from protests in 2016 and 2017 — overwhelmingly favor a pardon for Lee. This shows Samsung’s continued position in the country, where it not only manufactures smartphones and televisions, but also issues credit cards, builds luxury residential buildings and runs the country’s most popular hospital.
Business leaders and politicians have also called for Lee’s pardon, which they say will allow Samsung, one of the world’s largest makers of computer memory chips and smartphones, to make bolder and faster business decisions by fully restoring his right to run the business – the empire.
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the pardon for the business tycoons was aimed at “overcoming the economic crisis by encouraging business activity” at a time when South Koreans are struggling with rising prices, high personal debt and a volatile labor market.
Lee’s detractors say he has already fully resumed his leadership duties after being released on parole — even though South Korean law bars people convicted of serious financial crimes from returning to work for five years after serving their sentences. Former Justice Minister Park Bom Kae defended Lee’s involvement in Samsung’s management, insisting that his activities did not violate the ban because the billionaire was not paid by Samsung.
In a statement released through Samsung, Lee said he was grateful for “getting the chance to start over.”
“I want to apologize for causing so many people anxiety because of my shortcomings. I will work even harder to fulfill my duties as a businessman,” Lee said.
Lee still faces a separate trial on allegations of stock price manipulation and audit violations related to the 2015 merger.
Others to be pardoned include Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who received a suspended prison sentence in 2018 on similar bribery charges to Park, who was pardoned by then-President Moon Jae-in in December. Jang Sa-joo, chairman of Dongkuk Steel Mill, and former STX Group chairman Kang Duk-soo will also be pardoned.
A coalition of civic groups, including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, issued a statement criticizing the move to pardon business leaders, accusing Yun of pandering to the “chaebol,” meaning the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the country’s economy.
“President Yoon Suk-yeol’s (business) salesmanship sends a signal to chaebol leaders that they are free to commit whatever crimes they want,” the groups said, accusing Yoon of undermining the rule of law.
Former President Park was convicted of a wide range of corruption crimes, including conspiring with her longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil to receive millions of dollars in bribes and extortion from Samsung and other major companies while she was in office.
She faced more than two decades in prison before Moon pardoned her in December, citing the need to promote unity in a politically divided nation. Choi remains in prison. Chang, of Dongkuk Steel Mill, was released on parole in 2018 with about six months left to serve a 3.5-year prison sentence on charges of embezzling millions of dollars in corporate funds and using some of it to gamble in Las Vegas.
Last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a suspended prison sentence for Kang, who headed STX from 2003 to 2014, on charges of embezzlement and other crimes.
A notable exception to Yun’s pardon was former President Lee Myung-bak, who was paroled in June from a 17-year prison sentence after prosecutors acknowledged his health problems.
Khan, the justice minister, said the government was not considering pardoning convicted politicians or civil servants this time, noting that the focus was on the economy.
Lee, the CEO who became a conservative hero before falling from grace, was convicted of accepting bribes from major companies including Samsung, embezzling funds from a company he owned and other corruption-related crimes before and during his presidency from 2008 to 2013. .