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Samsung's Lee Jae-yong to be released early on parole

August 9, 2021

South Korean authorities have said billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong will be released this week.

Top Samsung executive Lee Jae-yong attends his trial in January last year
Lee is set to be released later this weekImage: Yonhap/picture alliance

South Korea said Monday it will release  Samsung's de facto chief, Lee Jae-yong, on parole this week after he spent a total of 18 months behind bars for his role in a massive corruption scandal.

A global chip shortage and Samsung's role in striking a COVID-19 vaccine deal with the US led to calls from business leaders and politicians to free the vice chairman of South Korea's largest conglomerate.

What is the latest?

Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said Lee has been granted parole due to concerns related to the "national economic situation and the global economic environment."

Lee, who has been in jail since January, runs the Samsung group in his capacity as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics. The firm is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of computer memory chips and smartphones.

A Samsung icon in the Gangnam area of the South Korean capital, Seoul
Samsung constantly battles with China's Huawei for the spot of number one global smartphone maker.Image: picture alliance/dpa/D.Kalker

He was convicted of bribing then-President Park Geun-hye and her close confidante, who are serving lengthier prison terms, to win government support for a 2015 merger.

Lee initially served one year of a five-year term from August 2017 which was later suspended.

That ruling was then overturned and while the sentence was shortened, he was sent back to jail in January this year.

What have the reactions been to Lee's pardon?

Political observers in South Korea suggested that move may have a political dimension, given how much sway Samsung has over the rest of the economy.

South Koreans will go to the polls next March for another presidential election, with the ruling liberal party looking to boost their support before ballot boxes open.

Top Samsung executive Jay Y. Lee speaks during a news conference in May 2020 last year
Lee has spent a total of 18 months in jail on corruption charges Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

"If you are in politics and realistically thinking about winning votes, there are five million people in South Korea who owns Samsung Electronics shares, and that’s a group of 10 million if you count their family members," said Park Sung-min, president of Seoul-based MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm.

But left-wing opponents, the Justice Party, hit out at the decision to pardon Lee.

In a statement, the party branded South Korea a "Samsung Republic" and that laws become meaningless in face of "the top 0.01% chaebol", a term for family-owned corporations.

The move could also deal a blow to President Moon Jae-in who came to power in 2017 promising reforms and to  end Samsung's cozy ties with the state.

The South Korean head of state had vowed to crack down on major white-collar crime and preferential treatment for convicted tycoons.

jf/rs (AP, dpa, Reuters)