On Friday, Samsung Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee was released on parole, and after issuing a statement to waiting reporters, he made his way to Samsung’s headquarters. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office has claimed that his early parole is in the national interest.
“We are well aware that there are supporting and opposing views on Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee’s parole,” Moon’s office said in a statement. “The views of the people who are opposed are also right.”
“On the other hand, there have been many people who called for his parole in this severe crisis, hoping that he will help the country with respect to semiconductors and vaccines.”
Lee’s grandfather founded Samsung in 1938. He’s been in charge of Samsung Group since 2014. Although his absence has not affected Samsung’s regular operations, Lee is responsible for long-term strategic decision making, and his prolonged absence has delayed Samsung’s investment plans.
In any given year, Samsung Group is responsible for 10-20% of South Korea’s GDP.
In 2017, Lee was charged with “bribery, embezzlement and perjury” and sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted for a portion of the charges. After a year of incarceration, the appeals court suspended his sentence and freed him temporarily.
In January, Lee was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment by a high court, with the previous time he’d served counting towards the new sentence. He was expected to remain in prison until sometime next year, but last month the Justice Ministry eased their guidelines to enable earlier paroles, allowing Lee to walk free after serving only 18 months.
Lee’s parole is contentious because Moon’s administration ran on a platform of political reform. Lee was convicted of bribing Choi Soon-Sil, a close friend of former President Park Geun-hye. Both Choi and Park are now imprisoned for severe instances of political misconduct, mostly centered around inappropriate ties between the government and South Korea’s large conglomerates.
By releasing Lee early, Moon is reneging on a campaign promise to sever those ties in favor of the economic growth Lee’s leadership could induce. In any given year, Samsung Group is responsible for 10-20% of South Korea’s GDP.
One of Lee’s next decisions will involve the location of a $17 billion chip fab in the US. Because of the chip shortage, both American lobbyists and Samsung’s investors have pressured Samsung’s leadership to finalize plans to build the fab.
Emerging from the Seoul Detention Center, Lee vowed to be better than before. “I’ve caused much concern for the people,” he said. “I deeply apologize. I am listening to the concerns, criticisms, worries and high expectations for me. I will work hard.”
Despite his forward-looking attitude, Lee’s future is uncertain. He faces complex charges of accounting fraud and stock price manipulation in connection to a 2015 merger that involved the cooperation of Park. He is separately accused of unlawful use of a medicinal sedative.
Lee has denied both charges and will stand trial for them later this year.