Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, who was convicted of bribery and embezzlement in 2017, has been granted presidential pardon in the latest example of South Korea’s long history of freeing convicted business moguls.
Mr Lee was released on parole in August 2021 with one year left of his 30-month term. The pardon on Friday will allow him to fully return to work.
To justify the move, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the latest sets of pardons were aimed at “overcoming the economic crisis through encouraging business activity”.
Besides Mr Lee, Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin and other business leaders are also among the 1,700 people who received pardons from president Yoon Suk-yeol ahead of the annual Liberation Day anniversary on Monday. It is a national holiday celebrating Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of the Second World War.
“I hope that this special pardon will become an occasion for the people to pull their strength together to help overcome the economic crisis,” Mr Yoon said during a cabinet meeting on Friday.
Mr Lee, meanwhile, expressed 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,” Mr Lee said.
Mr Lee was convicted for bribing Park and her associate – both of whom faced lengthier sentences – to grab the support of the government for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened Mr Lee‘s control over the family empire.
The business tycoon will still face a separate trial on charges of stock price manipulation and auditing violations related to the merger.
The revelation of the huge scandal led to candlelit protests by millions of South Koreans who protested the corruption every weekend in the winter of 2016-2017 to demand an end to Park’s government.
Friday’s pardon will allow Mr Lee to run Sumsung, ending a five-year ban on him holding a formal position at the company.
However, several business analysts believe that Mr Lee continued to control the business throughout the period, though Samsung has never confirmed it.
Samsung is the world’s biggest smartphone maker, and the conglomerate’s overall turnover is equivalent to about one-fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product. Its Samsung Electronics unit accounts for one-sixth of the total annual exports of South Korea.
Mr Yoon, a former prosecutor who swept to power with the promise to clean up corruption, was one of the members to spearhead the investigations that led to the conviction of Mr Lee.
A coalition of civic groups, including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, issued a statement condeming the pardons of business tycoons.
They accused the government of cosying up to chaebols, referring to family-owned conglomerates that dominate the country’s economy. These successful conglomerates have made South Korea a global export powerhouse and spearhead economic recovery post-pandemic.
“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 civic groups said.
South Korea has a long history of granting presidential pardons to business leaders convicted in bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion or other offences amid opposition from anti-corruption activists who slam the stitch-up between politics and business.
Park Yong-jin, an opposition leader, hit out at Mr Yoon’s government, saying Mr Lee’s pardon confirmed the widely-held belief that “you are free if you are rich, but guilty if poor”.
Additional reporting by agencies