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

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

Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Samsung Electronics officially has a new executive chairman. The heir to the Samsung empire, Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee), ascended to the throne of the world’s biggest chipmaker on Thursday. Samsung announced the move alongside its Q3 2022 earnings report, which it probably hopes will distract from the 23 percent drop in profits compared to the previous quarter.

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

If you ever want a wild reading topic, look up “Choi-gate,” a South Korean political scandal involving bribes paid to Choi Soon-sil, a “shamanistic cult member,” who had Rasputin-like influence over South Korea’s then-president, Park Geun-hye. Lee’s role in the scandal involved bribing Choi to convince President Park to approve a merger of two Samsung Group affiliates. Lee was originally sentenced to five years in jail, while Park was impeached and removed from office. (Samsung’s ruling family is so full of drama that NBC once considered basing a TV drama series on them. You can see why!)

Samsung’s empire is responsible for about 20 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product, though, and the country is famously lenient with its top business executives. An appeal and retrial cut Lee’s five-year prison sentence to 30 months, and after eventually serving 18 months of that sentence, Lee was out on parole. Lee could not technically be employed at Samsung while on parole, but that did not stop him from giving President Biden a tour of the facilities in May.

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

The new chairman’s legal troubles are not necessarily over. Lee is still facing yet another trial for stock price manipulation and accounting fraud.

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