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Samsung heir gets pardoned because South Korea's economy depends on him
- Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee has just been fully pardoned by the South Korean government for his various crimes.
- The government makes it clear that his pardon is due to protecting the economy, which depends heavily on Samsung.
- It is likely Lee will officially take over his father’s old position as the head of Samsung.
In South Korea, Samsung Electronics Vice-Chair Jay Y. Lee has been convicted several times on multiple counts of serious crimes. These include perjury, embezzlement, hiding assets outside the country, and bribing elected officials for the purposes of helping Samsung conduct various business transactions.
Although Lee — known as Lee Jae-yong in Korea — has served prison time for these crimes, his record is now clean. The Samsung heir has received a presidential pardon from the Korean government and is now able to do as he pleases at Samsung. This would include, theoretically, him finally taking over the company as people expected he would after the position was vacated due to his father’s death.
If you’re curious why Lee has received this pardon, the government makes it incredibly clear. “In a bid to overcome the economic crisis by vitalizing the economy, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong… will be reinstated,” the Korean government stated in a joint press release (via Bloomberg, h/t Ars Technica).
See also: Samsung: A complete guide to the world’s biggest phone and electronics company
In other words, the government feels the Korean economy is so dependent on Lee’s leadership at Samsung that it’s willing to look past all his crimes.
Samsung heir: Rules for thee, not for he
Korean laws prevented Lee from working at Samsung while he served his prison time. However, rumors suggest he was still involved in day-to-day business and the government did little to stop it.
Now that he’s out, his criminal record would still prevent him from having total freedom to run Samsung. That’s why the presidential pardon is significant. It essentially allows him to do as he would without a criminal record.
The Korean government has no problem looking the other way when Samsung does blatantly illegal things.
In addition to this, Lee’s father — Lee Kun-hee — also had extensive alleged criminal dealings. These include bribery, tax evasion, and breach of trust charges. Lee Kun-hee also received pardons from the Korean government and was never formally charged nor served any jail time.
Lee Kun-hee was hospitalized in 2014 after a heart attack. He died in 2020. Since 2014, however, his position as the head of Samsung has been left vacant, although his son was treated as the de facto Samsung heir.
Clearly, father and son both ran Samsung without much concern for the law. Now, Jay Y. Lee has a clean record and can get back to business once again.
Samsung and South Korea clearly have a big problem
“With urgent needs to overcome the national economic crisis, we carefully selected economic leaders who lead the national growth engine through active technology investment and job creation to be pardoned,” said Justice Minister Han Dong Hoon following Jay Y. Lee’s pardon.
It should be quite concerning for Korea that it is ready to depend so much on this one person for the entire Korean economy. Samsung is huge — it accounts for about 15% of South Korea’s GDP. But if Samsung needs the leadership of one man to survive, that puts a huge chunk of Korea’s success on the shoulders of that one man. Korea’s pardons of Samsung executives is basically a tacit approval that they are above the law.
That kind of structure is not sustainable and could cause incredible problems for Samsung — and Korea itself — as time goes on.