For most of Moon Jae-in’s presidency, the prosecution of the de facto leader of the Samsung group was the clearest evidence he could cite to show that South Korea was waiving preferential treatment for the powerful class of country tycoons. Now he plans to free Jay Y. Lee from prison in a move that could shape his final year in office.
The dramatic reversal reflects South Korea’s claustrophobic policies, where government leaders and big business are so dependent on each other that favoritism can trump the law. Polls show nearly seven in ten South Koreans now support a pardon for the vice president of Samsung Electronics Co. as the country tries to end the coronavirus pandemic and a crisis in the crucial semi-trailer industry. -conductors.
Lee, 52, was convicted of using bribes and corruption to gain control of Samsung, and for years there was little prospect of leniency. That started to change when he was sent to jail earlier this year for a second stint.
Leaders of other South Korean countries chaebol (the conglomerates) began asking for a pardon so that Lee could help address serious shortages in the chip industry, while politicians who had once supported his imprisonment turned the tide in hopes he could help. to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Samsung then emerged as a key player in the Moon Summit with US President Joe Biden in May.
One of the highlights of the presidential meeting was an agreement with Samsung Biologics Co. to produce the vaccine for Moderna Inc. in South Korea. Behind the scenes, Samsung’s pledge to invest $ 17 billion in the United States for an advanced chip manufacturing plant helped ease the vaccine deal, according to people familiar with the matter.
After the summit, Moon invited the leaders of the chaebols to the Blue House to thank them for their investment in the United States. He said he was aware of the public’s “sympathy” for a forgiveness from Lee, his first public remarks on the matter.
“Moon and his administration would have recognized the value of Samsung and its central role in boosting the country’s economy,” said Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University in Seoul.
Samsung is South Korea’s largest conglomerate with operations in everything from hospitals and drugs to home appliances and semiconductors. Samsung Electronics alone employs around 287,000 people worldwide and accounts for over 20% of the total market capitalization of the country’s main stock exchange board.
While Moon only gets one term and won’t run in next year’s election, releasing Lee via pardon or parole would anger some of the president’s main supporters and could hurt his party’s chances. to retain power. And it would also stain the legacy of a man who once vowed to abolish South Korea’s “chaebol-driven growth strategy”.
The progressive wing of Moon’s own Democratic Party strongly opposed the idea of pardoning the Samsung boss.
“Lee’s case is an issue of corruption and the illegal use of company money,” Democratic Party presidential candidate Park Yong-jin said in a telephone interview. “At the end of the day, it’s a matter of justice and we have to stick to that principle.
Political activists have also denounced the prospect of Lee receiving special treatment because of his connections. Moon was elected to replace a president who was impeached over the Samsung scandal. Additionally, Jay Y. Lee’s father Lee Kun-hee has been pardoned twice – in 2009 and 1997.
“The current government and the ruling party must remember that if Lee is pardoned or pardoned, it will be recorded as another preferential treatment for the chaebol and as a historic blemish,” said People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an activist group. , in a press release. .
Releasing Lee on parole would be less controversial. The justice minister could approve parole without seeking the president’s consent, meaning Moon wouldn’t have to be directly involved.
But that would leave some uncertainty for Samsung. While Lee would be able to return to work immediately following a presidential pardon, he would have to take legal action after parole to obtain exemption from a five-year job restriction. Lee will be eligible for parole in August after serving 60% of his 30-month sentence.
“The Moon government may be busy calculating the political pros and cons before making a decision between pardon or parole,” said Park Ju-gun, director of the research firm Leaders Index.
The move could help determine who will lead South Korea next year. Public support for Moon has fallen to near record levels due to his dissatisfaction with his handling of house prices and income inequality. This could open the door for the main opposition group, the People Power Party, to take control of the Blue House.
The PPP lost power to Moon’s party in part because of corruption allegations against its two former presidents. But the opposition group is repositioning itself as the leader of the reform.
The PPP seeks to influence the country’s former chief prosecutor, Yoon Seok-youl, to become its candidate for the highest office. He is the very man who investigated Lee and put him in jail. He also sued Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye, sending him to jail in 2017. Yoon has not taken a public stand on Lee’s forgiveness.
If Moon decides to pardon Lee, it will likely happen on Liberation Day, August 15. In South Korea, presidents usually grant pardons on Christmas Day.
It is not clear if this would end Lee’s legal troubles. He is on trial in a second related case, involving the merger of two Samsung units. This trial could spill over next year.
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