Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee has been released on parole today. Lee was serving a 30-month sentence for his role in “Choi-gate”, a major 2016 South Korean political scandal that toppled South Korean then-President Park Geun-hye.
In 2017, Lee was originally sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of bribery, embezzlement, capital flight and perjury. On appeal and a new trial, Lee’s five-year prison term was reduced to 30 months after the bribery and embezzlement charges were dropped. Lee served 18 months of that sentence and is now on parole.
Choi-gate is an incredible rabbit hole that you can dive into from the Wikipedia link above, but in short, it’s named after Choi Soon-Sil, a shamanic cult member and woman often referred to as “Korean Rasputin” for her influence on South Africa. The then President of Korea. Lee was accused of bribing Choi to get a favorable ruling from Park regarding a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates, Samsung C&T Corp (that is “Construction & Trading”) and Cheil Industries, a Korean textile company .
After his release, Lee told reporters: “I have worried people a lot. I apologize. I listen to the concerns, criticisms, concerns and high expectations of 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 big part of South Korea’s economy, and the incarceration of the leader has delayed key strategic decisions at the company. Citizen groups say South Korea’s business elite will be given different rules than everyone else and that Lee’s parole is the latest sign of that reality.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in released a statement regarding Lee’s release, saying: “We are well aware that there are both supportive and opposing views on Vice Chairman Jay Y Lee’s parole. The views of those who oppose are also right, on the other hand, there have been many people who have asked for his parole in this serious crisis, hoping that he will help the country with regard to semiconductors and vaccines. “
Samsung makes up between 10 and 20 percent of South Korea’s GDP, depending on how the last quarter goes. As the top dog at Samsung, Lee has the final say on major investments and acquisitions, and one of the big decisions he must make is where to build a $17 billion chip factory in the US. The factory could be operational as early as October 2022, and with the world currently in the midst of a global chip shortage, there is pressure to get things going. US companies have even lobbied South Korea to pardon Lee in hopes the deal would go through.
Lee reportedly got out of jail to go to Samsung’s headquarters, but he still has more legal issues to resolve. In October, he will face another lawsuit related to the Samsung C&T merger, this time for accounting fraud and stock price manipulation.