Lee Jae-yong's apology and promise heralds new era for Samsung: Korea Herald

In its editorial, the paper says that it is a bold decision for Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong to scrap the principle of managing Samsung without labour unions.

Samsung Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong speaks during a news conference in Seoul on May 6, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Samsung Electronics heir and Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong apologised Wednesday (May 6) in connection with his controversial succession of management and Samsung's labour issues.

It is not a pleasing sight for the top manager of South Korea's flagship business to bow low for an apology while being tried for more than three years now.

His apology signals drastic changes for Samsung.

Mr Lee vowed not to hand over management control of the tech giant to his children. It is rare for owners of Korean business conglomerates to publicly renounce leaving managerial control to their children.

He promised to scrap the principle of managing Samsung without labour unions. Also pledging to guarantee workers three primary rights (to organise unions, bargain collectively and act collectively).

It is a bold decision to throw out the principle that Samsung has kept for more than 80 years since its foundation in 1938.

The right to organise a labour union is guaranteed by law, but Korean labour movement is associated more with unreasonable violent strikes rather than with reasonable dialogue.

There are concerns that unions may cost Samsung its international competitiveness.

His apology conformed with demands by a committee of outside persons to monitor whether Samsung complies with laws.

Mr Lee faces a trial in a high court on charges of bribing former President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil with an intent of succeeding the management rights.

The first trial court sentenced Mr Lee to five years in jail and put him behind bars. The second trial court regarded Lee as a "victim of bribery coercion," sentencing 2 1/2 years in jail with a stay of execution with four years and releasing him.

But the Supreme Court sent back the case to the high court by ruling that Lee had made "illegal requests." Furthermore, it raised the amount of money considered as bribery.

In October, last year, the high court proposed Mr Lee set up a system to watch whether Samsung observes laws, and Lee launched the monitoring committee in February.

Without the Park and Choi scandal, such an apology would have been unforeseen. It would be impossible for any Korean company to refuse demands from the president. If it refuses, it will be persecuted.

Of course, Samsung and Mr Lee have problems, but few would say for sure that there are no problems with Korean politics.

During a trial late last year, Judge Jeong Joon-young of the high court asked Mr Lee to work out group-wide plans to be able to refuse politicians' bribery demands.

Samsung is beset with tough challenges amid an economic shock from Covid-19 that is likely to be protracted. As Mr Lee said, competition is becoming ever fiercer and the rules of game are changing rapidly.

A strong leadership is needed to overcome waves of difficulties and find a new field of growth. Only the most competent manager can guarantee the survival of Samsung.

Mr Lee said he would not pass on managerial control to his children, but it is concerning whether professional managers could steer Samsung as responsibly as its owner.

In a dire economic situation, Samsung's vision and role as Korea's largest company are all the more important.

It already holds the world's leading competitiveness in many areas.

It accounts for 20 per cent of Korea's exports and pays more than 10 trillion won ($8 billion) in corporate taxes each year.

There is no talking about Korea's economic growth without Samsung's contributions.

Mr Lee's apology must serve as an occasion for Samsung and the Korean economy to take another leap.

Politicians and the government must shed anti-business sentiment and support Samsung to ensure it can devote itself to reviving and growing the national economy. The court and the prosecution should complete trials and investigations as quickly as possible.

His apology and pledges herald the dawn of a new era. Samsung is on track to be reborn as a business entity with a new level of innovation and better communication with the people.

The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

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