South Korea pardons billionaire Samsung head Lee Jae-yong to aid economy

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SEOUL, Aug. 12 (UPI) — The South Korean government will grant a special presidential pardon to Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung, it announced Friday in a move that officials said was intended to help spur the economy.

The 54-year-old billionaire tycoon is among the nearly 1,700 people that President Yoon Suk-yeol will officially pardon on Monday, South Korea’s Liberation Day holiday.

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Lee was released from prison on parole last August after serving around 18 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzlement and bribery of former President Park Geun-hye.

The pardon will allow him to resume running Samsung, the country’s largest conglomerate, freeing him from a five-year employment ban after his parole.

Lee was not the only tycoon pardoned Friday — a handful of other top business leaders received amnesty as well, including Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who had also been convicted on bribery charges related to Park.

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Yoon told reporters Friday that the amnesty decisions were made in an effort to spark an economy that has been struggling with inflation and is showing signs of a slowdown.

“The pardons are above all to focus on people’s livelihoods and economic recovery,” Yoon said.

Shortly after Yoon took office in May, Samsung Group announced that it would invest $356 billion through 2026, up more than 30% from the previous five years, and employ 80,000 workers.

The country’s justice ministry also commented Friday, saying that the pardons of Lee, Shin and other leaders would provide an urgent boost “to overcome the national economic crisis.”

“National economic competitiveness is enhanced by carefully selecting and including amnesty items for major economic leaders who are leading the national growth engine through active technology investment and job creation,” the ministry said in a statement.

Business leaders had long been lobbying for the pardon of Lee, citing the outsize importance of Samsung on South Korea’s export-driven economy, particularly in crucial global sectors such as semiconductors and memory chips. The conglomerate, or chaebol, accounts for around 20% of the country’s stock market value.

Public opinion has also been strongly in favor of pardoning the third-generation company head, with some 70% expressing support in a National Barometer Survey poll last month.

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There is a lengthy history of tycoons being pardoned in South Korea. The Samsung heir’s father, the late former chairman Lee Kun-hee, was convicted for white-collar crimes in 1996 and 2008 but avoided jail time and received presidential amnesty.

Friday’s pardons drew sharp criticism from politicians and activists, who claim such impunity feeds deep-seated corruption in business and government.

“Under the guise of ‘reviving the economy,’ preferential treatment for economic crimes by chaebol heads was again exercised,” a joint statement by several activist groups and trade unions said Friday.

“The companies should be managed through transparent and independent decision-making by the board of directors,” the statement, released by the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, said. “However, until now, the heads of chaebols have used corporations as if they were their own property and used them as a means to pursue their own interests.”

Lee’s legal troubles are not over. He is still facing a separate trial on stock manipulation charges connected to the controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates.