Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong – known in the West as Jay Y. Lee – has won a presidential pardon from 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 15.
The presidential pardon is reminiscent of the two granted to Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted of corruption and tax evasion in 1996 and 2008.
“In an effort to overcome the economic crisis by revitalizing the economy, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, whose suspended prison sentence recently ended, will be reinstated,”[ads1]; the South Korean government said in a statement reported by Financial Times.
The pardon is the latest twist in a bribery scandal dating 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 a year of the sentence before being released on appeal. He was then re-imprisoned in January 2021 before being released again in August of the same year on parole. In total, he served a year and a half of the 30-month sentence.
A presidential pardon is important because it opens the door for Lee to take back 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 such as Samsung for five years after conviction. Bloomberg reports that Lee has continued to receive reports from the company without having an official title.
Samsung currently has no one acting as 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 grapples with inflation, the instability caused by the war in Ukraine, supply chain issues created by China’s Covid shutdowns, and complications resulting from escalating relations between the United States and China.
Lee’s formal return to the company is seen as a potential source of stability, not to mention potentially politically popular. As Associated Press noted last year, about five million people in South Korea own shares in Samsung, prompting widespread support for Lee’s release from prison. But critics say the pardon is endemic of a cozy relationship between Korea’s business and political elite that borders on the corrupt, Financial Times notes.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to start over. I apologize for causing concern to many people,” Lee said in a statement. “I will try harder to give back to the community and grow together.” But the businessman’s legal troubles are far from over, as he still faces separate stock manipulation charges in relation to a merger of two Samsung subsidiaries.