Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, head of South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, dies at 78

In a photo taken on March 10, 2011, Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee arrives at an executive board meeting of the Federation of Korean Industries in Seoul.
In a photo taken on March 10, 2011, Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee arrives at an executive board meeting of the Federation of Korean Industries in Seoul.PHOTO: REUTERS
In a photo taken on April 22, 2008, Mr Lee Kun-hee holds a press conference at Samsung's headquarters in Seoul.
In a photo taken on April 22, 2008, Mr Lee Kun-hee holds a press conference at Samsung's headquarters in Seoul.PHOTO: AFP
In a photo taken on Jan 12, 2012, Mr Lee Kun-hee greets reporters at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
In a photo taken on Jan 12, 2012, Mr Lee Kun-hee greets reporters at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.PHOTO: REUTERS
In a photo taken on Jan 9, 2010, Mr Lee Kun-hee tours the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show with his wife Hong Ra-hee (left) and daughter Lee Seo-hyun in Las Vegas.
In a photo taken on Jan 9, 2010, Mr Lee Kun-hee tours the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show with his wife Hong Ra-hee (left) and daughter Lee Seo-hyun in Las Vegas.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) -Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee died at the age of 78 on Sunday (Oct 25) , the company said.

Under Mr Lee’s leadership, Samsung rose to become the world’s largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, and the firm’s overall turnover today is equivalent to a fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product. 

Known for a reclusive lifestyle, Mr Lee was left bedridden by a heart attack in 2014. Little was revealed about his condition, leaving him shrouded in mystery even in his final days.

"It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Kun-hee Lee, chairman of Samsung Electronics," the company said in a statement.

"Chairman Lee passed away on Oct 25 with his family, including vice-chairman Jay Y. Lee, by his side."

"Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business," the firm said, adding: "His legacy will be everlasting."

Samsung is by far the biggest of the family-controlled conglomerates, or chaebols, that dominate business in South Korea. 

They drove the nation’s transformation from a war-ravaged ruin to the world’s 12th-largest economy, but nowadays are accused of murky political ties and stifling competition – with Mr Lee himself twice convicted of criminal offences, in one case bribing a president.

When he  inherited the chairmanship of the Samsung group in 1987 – founded by his father as a fish and fruit exporter – it was already the country’s largest conglomerate, with operations ranging from consumer electronics to construction. 


In a photo taken on Aug 21, 2009, Mr Lee Kun-hee and his son Lee Jae-yong (left) wait to make a call of condolence for the late President Kim Dae-jung at a memorial altar, in Seoul. PHOTO: REUTERS

But Mr Lee focused it and took it global: By the time he suffered a heart attack in 2014, it was the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips. It is also a major global player in semiconductors and LCD displays today. 

Even so, he seldom ventured out from the high walls of his private compound in central Seoul to visit the company headquarters, earning him the nickname the “hermit king”.

His son, Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, has been at the helm of the company since the 2014 heart attack.

The younger Lee was jailed for five years in 2017 after being found guilty of bribery and other offences linked to former president Park Geun-hye, before being cleared of the most serious charges on appeal and released a year later.

That case is currently being retried.