Samsung Group’s leader, Jay Y. Lee, is out of jail on parole today. Lee was serving a 30-month sentence for his role in “Choi-gate,” a major 2016 South Korean political scandal that brought down South Korean then-President Park Geun-hye.
In 2017, Lee was originally sentenced to five years in jail after being found guilty of bribery, embezzlement, capital flight, and perjury charges. An appeal and re-trial cut Lee’s five-year prison sentence down to 30 months after suspending the charges for bribery and embezzlement. Lee served 18 months of that sentence, and now he’s out on parole.
Choi-gate is an incredible rabbit hole you can dive into at the above Wikipedia link, but in short, it’s named for Choi Soon-Sil, a shamanistic cult member and a woman often called “Korean Rasputin,” due to her influence over South Korea’s then-president. Lee was accused of bribing Choi to get a favorable ruling from Park related to a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates, Samsung C&T Corp (that’s “Construction & Trading”) and Cheil Industries, a Korean textile firm.
Upon his release, Lee told reporters, “I’ve caused much concern for the people. I deeply apologize. I am listening to the concerns, criticisms, worries, and high expectations for me. I will work hard.”
Lee’s release from prison is controversial. The pro-business side of South Korean politics wants to see Lee back on the streets because Samsung is a massive part of South Korea’s economy, and jailing the leader has delayed major strategic decisions at the company. Civic groups say South Korea’s business elite get a different set of rules from everyone else and that Lee’s parole is the latest sign of that reality.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office released a statement on Lee’s release, saying, “We are well aware that there are supporting and opposing views on Vice-Chairman Jay Y Lee’s parole. 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.”
Samsung makes up anywhere from 10-20 percent of South Korea’s GDP, depending on how the latest quarter is going. As the top dog at Samsung, Lee has the final say on major investments and acquisitions, and one of the big decisions he needs to make is where to build a $17 billion chip factory in the US. The plant could be operational as soon as October 2022, and with the world currently in the middle of a global chip shortage, there’s pressure to get everything started. US businesses have even been lobbying South Korea to pardon Lee in the hopes that the deal would go through.
Lee reportedly left prison to head to Samsung headquarters, but he still has more legal issues to deal with. In October, he will face another trial relating to the Samsung C&T merger, this time for accounting fraud and stock price manipulation.