South Korea President Moon Jae-in under pressure to pardon Samsung scion

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is under some pressure to pardon jailed Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is under some pressure to pardon jailed Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

SEOUL - To pardon or not to pardon Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, that is the question troubling South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

Lee, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics and the de facto head of the whole Samsung Group, was thrown behind bars in January for embezzlement and bribery.

Samsung has been lobbying for his release, emphasising that they need him out to lead the country's largest conglomerate amid growing global competition.

When asked by the media last week if he would pardon Lee, Mr Moon said he is "hearing a lot of opinions".

"We must endeavour to boost the competitiveness of our semiconductor industry, but it is also important to consider fairness, past precedent and public sentiment," he said. "I don't view this as a simple issue of presidential discretion. I will make a decision after listening to what people have to say."

South Korea has a history of granting presidential pardons to politicians and business leaders jailed for corruption, traditionally on political anniversaries.

August 15, or Liberation Day, has been named a possible date for Lee's release, although it would seem ironic as the 52-year-old is on trial separately for accounting fraud and a controversial merger of two Samsung affiliates.

But if lobby groups, opinion polls and newspaper editorials are any indication, there is a growing number of people who want Lee out as they fear Samsung - which is responsible for about 20 per cent of South Korea's gross domestic product - would fumble without him.

Samsung is arguing they need their leader back to properly run their business, while some observers say releasing Lee can allow him to use his leverage for a "vaccine swap" deal with the United States when Mr Moon meets US President Joe Biden on Friday.

The US is reportedly pressuring Samsung to invest in another manufacturing plant in the US, and in return, Samsung can demand a deal with biopharmaceutical firm Moderna to produce its vaccines in South Korea.

Local reports suggest that Samsung may use its leverage with the US to exert pressure on Mr Moon to pardon Lee.

Five major business groups sent a petition to the presidential Blue House last month seeking a pardon for Lee.

A survey last week by four polling companies including Hankook Research showed that 64 per cent of respondents wanted Lee to be pardoned, while 27 per cent objected to the idea.

At least two representatives from the ruling liberal Democratic Party have also openly called for Lee's pardon.

Lawmaker Yang Hyang-ja, a former Samsung executive, warned that Samsung is now "fighting in the global battlefield without a leader".

Lawmaker Lee Won-wook added: "The economy is unstable due to Covid-19 and people are demanding for Lee to be pardoned so as to overcome the country's semiconductor crisis."

Justice Minister Park Beom-kye, however, was firm in his objection.

"As minister of justice, in a position whereby I am responsible for rigorous law enforcement, I have never considered (a pardon for Lee)," he was cited as saying.

South Korea has long allowed convicted conglomerate heads to continue to conduct business from behind bars.

SK Group chairman Chey Tae-won reportedly held nearly 1,800 business-related meetings during the 17 months he was in prison from 2013 for embezzlement and other offences, until he was pardoned.

And Lee's absence has not dented Samsung's performance.

Driven by a rise in sales of smartphones and consumer electronics, despite a weakened semiconductor business, Samsung Electronics earned a record-high revenue of 65.39 trillion won (S$77 billion) in the first three months of this year. Its operating profit jumped nearly 45.53 per cent compared with the previous year, reaching 9.38 trillion won.

The Seoul High Court in January sentenced Lee to 2½ years in jail for offences that include bribing disgraced former president Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil, who are both in prison too.

However, public opinion has turned against Lee's imprisonment and "the longer he's in there, the more antagonistic the public becomes", noted international relations professor Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University.

"People think it's unfair and uncalled for to keep incarcerated someone who is supposed to be at the global front fighting for Samsung against all the competition," he told The Straits Times.

"Samsung takes a huge chunk of the South Korean economy, and to put the owner in prison cannot look good for the morale of the company as well as the businesses that Samsung conducts overseas."

Professor Chang Sea-jin of the National University of Singapore, who wrote the book Sony vs Samsung: The Inside Story of the Electronics Giants' Battle for Global Supremacy, said now is the "right time" to consider a presidential pardon for Lee.

"Samsung needs him to spearhead its efforts to go into more advanced manufacturing," he told ST.

"But the main reason he's in prison is because Park and Choi are still in prison. If they are in prison for taking bribes, how can you free the people who gave them bribes?"