South Korea's business leaders call on President Moon Jae-in to free jailed Samsung boss

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) was asked by the chiefs of four major business empires in the country to pardon jailed Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Leaders of South Korea's largest conglomerates urged President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday (June 2) to pardon Lee Jae-yong, the jailed vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, to maintain the country's edge in the chip industry.

The plea was made during a luncheon between Mr Moon and the chiefs of four major business empires - Samsung, Hyundai, LG and SK - to boost economic cooperation.

The South Korean President and his American counterpart Joe Biden had earlier agreed to bolster the global supply chain for high-tech manufacturing.

Lee, the 52-year-old heir of the world's biggest memory chip maker and second-largest contract chip manufacturer, has been sentenced to 30 months in prison after being convicted of bribery, embezzlement and other offences.

SK Group chairman Chey Tae-won asked Mr Moon to consider a petition for Lee's release. It was submitted in April jointly by five business lobbies, including the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry headed by Mr Chey, according to Mr Moon's spokesman Park Kyung-mee.

Mr Moon replied that he "understood" the difficulties for the companies, Ms Park said. He did not elaborate, but appeared more open to the idea after simply saying at a news conference in March that he would consider public opinion before deciding.

Mr Moon had vowed to not pardon serious economic crimes such as bribery and embezzlement before taking office in 2017.

Legal experts believe Lee is eligible for parole, as he has served more than half of his 30-month sentence.

South Korean law allows parole to be granted after one-third of the sentence has been served, with the detainee showing exemplary behaviour.

Business leaders have highlighted the need for Lee to be active to retain South Korea's leading position in the chip industry amid global shortages.

"Semiconductors require large-scale investment decisions, and leaders can only make such decisions in a swift manner,"said Mr Kim Ki-nam, vice-chairman and chief executive of Samsung's device business.

Mr Biden has called for greater South Korean investment, and Samsung confirmed a plan to funnel US$17 billion (S$22.5 billion) into a new plant for chip contract manufacturing in the US during Mr Moon's trip to Washington.

Lee is in a unique position overseeing all three of Samsung's divisions - chips, smartphones and home appliances, said Mr Park Jea-gun, a professor at Hanyang University in Seoul.

"It's hard to make big business decisions if (you're) not the owner," he added.

But the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an activist group that resists pardoning chaebol (Korean for conglomerate) chiefs, issued a statement saying that releasing Lee would "abuse the legal system to justify corporate crimes".

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