South Korea to release Samsung scion on parole

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea is set to parole billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong this week after serving 18 months in jail for his role in a massive corruption scandal that sparked nationwide protests and the removal of the

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea is set to release billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong this week after serving 18 months in jail for his role in a massive corruption scandal that sparked nationwide protests and led to the country’s fall previous president.

The Justice Department’s announcement on Monday, received a year after Lee’s 30-month sentence, expanded the story of leniency towards serious white-collar crime and preferential treatment for convicted tycoons. It tarnishes the reformist image of President Moon Jae-in, who, after winning a presidential by-election in 2017, vowed to contain the excesses of “chaebol,” South Korea’s family conglomerates, and to end their cozy ties with the government.

Lee, who has been jailed since January, heads the Samsung group in his role as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of computer memory chips and smartphones.

He was convicted of bribing then-President Park Geun-hye and her close confidante, who are serving extended prison sentences, to gain government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung subsidiaries that tightened his control over the corporate empire.

Business leaders and key members of Moon’s government and ruling party have endorsed Lee’s early release over the past few months, citing Samsung’s critical role in the national economy and the increasing challenges it is facing in the global semiconductor market.

Recent polls have shown that South Koreans – years away from the angry rallies of 2016 and 2017 – are broadly in favor of Lee’s release, the homes they live in and the hospitals where they are born or die.

Even after his release on Friday, Lee still faces legal risk as he faces a lawsuit on various charges of stock price manipulation and auditing violations related to the 2015 merger. Lee’s next trial on the case is scheduled for Thursday in the Seoul Central District Court.

Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said the decision to parole Lee, who will be released on Friday along with about 800 other convicts, was based on concerns about the “national economic climate and global economic environment” amid ongoing COVID-19 Crisis. Moon’s office did not immediately comment on Lee’s release.

Lee, 53, was originally sentenced to five years in prison in 2017 on corruption charges but was released after 11 months in February 2018 following a ruling by the Seoul Supreme Court that reduced his term to 2 1/2 years and revoked his sentence and the key overturned convictions and reducing the amount of his bribes.

The Supreme Court referred the case to the Supreme Court in 2019, ruling that the amount of Lee’s bribes was undervalued. Lee was sent back to prison on retrial in January this year.

Samsung Electronics has shown no obvious signs of business problems while Lee ran the company behind bars and communicated his decisions through visits from company executives. The demand for semiconductor chips, televisions, and other products has increased as the pandemic forced millions of people to stay at home.

The company announced last month that its second quarter operating profit increased 54% year over year to 12.57 trillion won ($ 11 billion), driven by its dual strengths in components and finished products.

However, there were also concerns that Lee’s jail sentence would slow Samsung’s speed with large investments when it has to invest aggressively to stay competitive in semiconductors and other technologies.

While Samsung remains dominant in memory chips used to store information, there is a view that it is increasingly lagging behind competitor Taiwan Semiconductor in the race for high-tech chips designed to perform a broader range of functions Manufacturing Co. is falling behind.

The demand for advanced chips is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, powered by fifth generation (5G) wireless services, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars. Some analysts say Samsung may be more active in pursuing merger and acquisition deals to capture such technology once Lee is released and make investments easier to see.

Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press

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