Lee served a total of 18 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzling millions of dollars from corporate funds to bribe South Korea’s previous president, Park Geun-hye, to ensure government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened his control over the corporate empire.
His case was part of a massive corruption scandal that triggered nationwide protests and led to the impeachment and ouster of Park, who has been jailed since 2017 and won’t be released until 2039 if she fully serves her term.
Even with his release, Lee isn’t out of the legal woods. He appeared at the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday for another trial over alleged stock price manipulation, auditing violations and other financial crimes related to the 2015 merger. His lawyers have insisted the allegations in that case were not criminal acts but were normal business activities.
In including Lee among some 800 prisoners who were granted paroles ahead of Sunday’s Liberation Day, which celebrates Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II, Justice Ministry cited unspecified economic concerns related to the pandemic and global markets.
Lee runs the Samsung conglomerate in his capacity as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, a major global provider of computer memory chips and smartphones.
Lee was originally sentenced in 2017 to five years in prison on the corruption charges but was freed after 11 months in February 2018 following a Seoul High Court ruling that reduced his term to 2 ½ years and suspended his sentence, overturning key convictions and reducing the amount of his bribes.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the high court in 2019, ruling that the amount of Lee’s bribes had been undervalued. Lee was jailed again in January this year following a retrial.
Almost no one had expected Lee to serve his full sentence through July 2022.
After avoiding the issue for months, Moon signalled a step change in May when he told reporters that his government will consider both the intensifying competition in the semiconductor sector and public feelings before deciding whether to grant Lee an early release.
But in the face of criticism that it revived a tradition of preferential treatment for convicted tycoons, Moon’s office has distanced itself from Lee’s release, saying paroles are up to the Justice Ministry.
Justice Minister Park Beom-kye has stressed he wasn’t personally involved in the process of selecting parole candidates, although he had the authority to approve or deny the release of prisoners proposed by the ministry’s parole committee.
While Lee has always been in control of Samsung regardless of whether he was in the boardroom or a prison cell, it’s unclear how quickly he could formally resume his management role. He would need the Justice Minister to officially approve his return to work as the law bans people convicted for major financial crimes from returning to work for five years after their release. He is widely expected to get that approval.
Samsung showed no obvious sign of trouble while Lee was in prison. It has reported robust profit during the coronavirus pandemic, seeing larger demands for its consumer electronics products and chips used in computing devices and servers as the virus forced millions to stay at home.
But there were also views that Lee’s prison term compromised Samsung’s speed in major investments when it needs to spend aggressively to stay competitive in semiconductors and other technologies.
While Samsung remains dominant in memory chips, which are used to store information, it’s apparently falling behind rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing in the race for high-tech chips designed to perform a broader range of functions.
The demand for advanced chips is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, driven by 5G wireless services, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. Some analysts say Samsung will become more active in pursing merger and acquisition deals to gain such technologies as Lee will be able to sign off on investments more easily.
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