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Fresh off of parole, Samsung heir ascends to chairman of the company




Jay Y. Lee leaves court following the verdict in the corruption scandal in August 2017.
Enlarge / Jay Y. Lee leaves court following the verdict in the corruption scandal in August 2017.

Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Samsung Electronics officially has a new executive chairman. Heir to the Samsung empire, Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee), ascended the throne of the world’s largest chipmaker on Thursday. Samsung announced the move alongside its third-quarter 2022 earnings report, which it hopes will likely distract from the 23% drop in profits from the previous quarter.

Lee has been Samsung’s de facto leader for several years now, so his appointment is mostly a formality. Former Samsung chairman and Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, died in 2020, but before that he was incapacitated for years following a heart attack in 2014. The rise of Lee as president was always expected, but it was delayed due to Lee’s many legal problems.

If you ever want a wild read, search for “Choi-gate,” a South Korean political scandal involving bribes paid to Choi Soon-sil, a “shamanic cult member,” who had a Rasputin-like influence on the then South Korean president. , Park Geun Hye. Lee’s role in the scandal was to bribe Choi to convince Chairman Park to approve the merger of two Samsung Group subsidiaries. Lee was initially sentenced to five years in prison, while Park was impeached and removed from office. (Samsung’s ruling family is so full of drama that NBC once considered basing a TV series on them. You can see why!)

Samsung’s empire is responsible for around 20% of South Korea’s gross domestic product, however, and the country is notoriously lenient with its top corporate executives. An appeal and retrial reduced Lee’s five-year prison sentence to 30 months, and after eventually serving 18 months of that sentence, Lee was released on parole. Lee technically couldn’t be employed at Samsung while on parole, but that didn’t stop him from showing President Biden around the facility in May.

In August, Lee received a presidential pardon, ending parole terms and paving the way for him to take over as president. Having a criminal on the stand will only mean that the Prince of Samsung is following in his father’s footsteps. The elder Lee was convicted of bribery in 1996 and tax evasion and breach of trust in 2009, but in both cases he was never arrested, never served jail time and later received a presidential pardon. The official title of chairman — and the chance to officially work at Samsung again — gives Lee more political clout to take bigger steps and make strategic decisions.

The legal troubles of the new president are not necessarily over. Lee still faces another lawsuit for stock price manipulation and accounting fraud.