President Yoon Suk-yeol has granted his first special pardons to Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong and other business tycoons to help “overcome an economic crisis” facing Korea.
Lotte Group Chair Shin Dong-bin, Dongkuk Steel Mill Chair and CEO Chang Sae-joo and former STX Group Chair Kang Duk-soo were among other business leaders who are being pardoned, Monday, on the 77th anniversary of the country’s Liberation Day.
“With urgent needs to overcome the national economic crisis, several business people were carefully selected, so they would lead the economic growth through technology investment and job creation,” Justice minister Han Dong Hoon said during a press briefing in Seoul.
Politically controversial figures, including former President Lee Myung-bak and former South Gyeongsang Province Govenor Kim Kyoung-soo, were excluded from consideration. In June, Yoon said it would be wrong to keep a former president behind bars for too long, hinting at pardoning Lee. But just before the announcement, Yoon said he made the decision based on whether it would help the livelihoods of ordinary people through economic recovery.
Nearly 1,700 others on the list include disabled people and small business owners and labour activists convicted of minor offenses.
Lee vows to work harder for economy
“I will do my best to fulfill my responsibility as a businessperson. I will work to contribute to the economy through steady investments and job creation for young people,” Lee, 54, said in a statement released following the announcement.
The pardon means he can return to the top management as a registered board member at a time when Samsung Electronics faces not only stiff competition, but also challenges created by supply chain disruptions and the intensifying US-Sino rivalry. Lee is expected to receive the chair title soon. His father and Samsung Electronics chair, Lee Kun-hee, died two years ago.
The vice chair was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for bribing former President Park Geun-hye and her confidant to win government support for a merger between two Samsung affiliates that would tighten his grip on the corporate empire. He was released on parole in August 2021.
He still faces a separate trial on accounting fraud charges related to the 2015 merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries.
Lotte also expressed appreciation for the pardon, saying the company will play its part to revive the economy.
Shin was sentenced to a suspended 30-month prison term for bribing former President Park though donations to a sports foundation to win a lucrative duty-free deal.
The country’s major business groups, including the Federation of Korean Industries and the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, welcomed the news.
But some conservative politicians, including Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, expressed regret, calling it an “uninspiring political event” for excluding Lee, the former president, who in June was granted a temporary release from a 17-year prison term for corruption charges.
Politically, Yoon’s decision is not surprising and reflects recent opinion polls that generally favoured granting the Samsung heir a pardon. According to a poll released early this month, 64.2 percent of respondents said they would support pardoning Lee. But in the same survey, only 37.2 percent said they would support pardoning the former president.
Experts say pardoning people like the former president would be politically risky for Yoon, who is currently struggling with faltering popularity as a result of factional infighting within the ruling People Power Party and a series of policy missteps, such as attempting to lower the school entry age for children.
According to a survey released Friday by Gallup Korea, 25 percent of respondents said they would support Yoon, a 1 percentage point increase from the lowest point of 24 percent last week.