SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president will formally pardon Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, one year after he was released on parole from a prison sentence for bribing former President Park Geun-hye as part of the massive corruption scandal that toppled Park’s government, the justice minister announced Friday.
Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin and two other top business leaders will be pardoned as well, extending South Korea’s history of leniency toward convicted business tycoons and major white-collar crimes. They are among some 1,700 people President Yoon Suk Yeol will pardon on Monday, a national holiday celebrating Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.
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The pardon of Lee, who was released on parole in August 2021 with a year left on his 30-month term, underscores Samsung’s huge influence over a country that relies on its technology exports. He was convicted of bribing Park and her close confidante, who both were sentenced to lengthier prison terms, to win government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened Lee’s control over the corporate empire.
Lotte’s Shin received a suspended prison term in 2018 on similar charges of bribing Park, whom then-President Moon Jae-in pardoned in December. Chang Saejoo (chairman of Dongkuk Steel Mill) and Kang Duk–soo (ex-chairman STX Group), are two other business leaders that will be forgiven.
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the pardons of the business tycoons were aimed at “overcoming the economic crisis through encouraging business activity.” Yoon earlier told reporters that his pardons could help create “breathing room” for struggling domestic livelihoods. Lee, 54, runs the Samsung group in his capacity as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, one of the world’s largest makers of computer memory chips and smartphones. He was freed by Moon’s government, which then defended its decision on unspecified concerns related to the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement released through Samsung, Lee said he expresses his sincere gratitude for “receiving an opportunity to start anew.”
“I want to express my apologies for causing concerns for many people because of my shortcomings. I will work even harder to fulfill my responsibilities and duties as a businessperson,” Lee said.
Lee faces an additional trial for charges related to stock price manipulations and auditing violations arising from the 2015 merger.
A coalition of civic groups, including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, issued a statement criticizing Yoon’s move to pardon Lee Jae-yong and the other business tycoons, accusing him of cozying up to “chaebol,” referring to the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the country’s economy.
“President Yoon Suk Yeol’s sell-out (to business tycoons) sends a signal to chaebol chiefs that they are free to commit all the crimes they want,” the groups said.
But recent opinion polls have indicated South Koreans – years removed from the angry protests in late 2016 and 2017 that ousted Park from office – largely favored granting Lee a pardon, reflecting Samsung’s influence in a country where it provides smartphones, TVs and credit-cards people use, the apartments they live in and the hospitals where they are born or go to die.
Business leaders and politicians had also called for Lee’s pardon, which they said would allow Samsung to be bolder and quicker in business decisions by fully reinstating his rights to run the business empire. South Korea’s law bans people convicted of major financial crimes from returning to work for five years following the end of their sentences.
Critics believe that Lee had always held control over Samsung, even though he was in prison. Lee resumed almost all of his managerial duties upon his release. Former Justice Minister Park Beom-kye, who served under the Moon government, had defended Lee’s involvement in Samsung’s management following his parole, insisting that his activities weren’t in violation of the five-year ban because the billionaire heir wasn’t receiving wages from Samsung.
Park Geun-hye was convicted in a variety of corruption cases, including her collusion with Choi Soon-sil (her longtime confidante) to get millions in bribes.
Moon, who was serving a sentence of over two decades in prison for her crimes against humanity, pardoned Choi in December. Moon cited the need to encourage unity and reconciliation in the nation. Choi is still in prison. Chang was sentenced to a term of 3 1/2 years in prison on parole for his crimes of embezzlement and gambling in Las Vegas.
South Korea’s Supreme Court last year confirmed a suspended prison sentence for Kang, who headed STX from 2003 to 2014, on charges of embezzling corporate funds and other crimes.
A notable exclusion from Yoon’s pardons was former President Lee Myung-bak, who in June was granted a temporary release from a 17-year prison term over his own set of corruption charges after prosecutors acknowledged his health problems.
Han claimed that Han did not believe that pardons for convicted politicians were appropriate at this point. Han stated that they had instead focused on the economy.
Lee, a CEO-turned-conservative hero before his fall from grace, was convicted of taking bribes from big businesses including Samsung, embezzling funds from a company that he owned, and other corruption-related crimes before and during his presidency from 2008 to 2013.
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