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Samsung amnesty exposes Koreans' love-hate sentiment towards big names | Business and Economy

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South Korea, Seoul – When U.S. President Joe Biden visited South Korea in May, his first stop was Samsung Electronics’ massive semiconductor factory south of Seoul.

Biden’s tour guide was Lee Jae-young, the de facto leader of South Korea’s largest conglomerate Samsung.

The prospect of the visit was important to Lee, who, like many South Korean businessmen, has a troubled past. Analysts said the appearance with Biden was part of the process of restoring Mr. Lee’s image following his conviction.

The process follows on Friday when South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol named Lee as one of those eligible for a presidential pardon on the occasion of Liberation Day, which marks the end of Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. reached its climax.

Lee’s appearance at the factory and the US president’s view of prioritizing Samsung’s technology “assured public anger towards Samsung by emphasizing Samsung’s best technology and its dominance in the global market,” he said. , said Kim Sei-wan, an economics professor at Ewha University. A women’s university in Seoul told Al Jazeera.

Lee’s forgiveness was not unexpected. Presidents usually grant pardons on holidays that fall on Mondays, and in the past few years, business leaders convicted of corruption and unfair business practices have been granted pardons. Lee Kun-hee), the former chairman, received a presidential pardon twice.

This year’s list of pardonees also included other prominent businessmen, including Kang Duk-soo, former chairman of the STX Group, a trading and ship-building conglomerate, and Jang Se-ju, chairman of Dongguk Steel.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said he hopes the latest amnesty for convicted people will help the country overcome economic hardships. [File: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg]

Ahead of Friday’s official announcement, the conservative People’s Power Party bannerman Yoon hopes the amnesty will be “an opportunity for all the people to come together and overcome the economic crisis caused by COVID”. said. 19 Pandemic.

Samsung’s Lee took office in 2017 after being convicted of bribing then-president Park Geun-hye as part of a widespread corruption scandal that rocked the country and led to her dismissal. was sentenced to five years in prison.

Lee served 19 months in prison before being released on parole last year. The pardon is important because it removes restrictions on the roles Lee can play within the company and could pave the way for him to formally assume the position of chairman of the Samsung Group.

Samsung is spread across the South Korean economy and is the largest employer, and many in the country see Samsung as something of a national icon rather than just a company.

The company is the world’s leading manufacturer of memory chips and is working hard to compete with semiconductor leader Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd. in the foundry sector.

“Positive impact on the economy”

Supporters of Lee’s pardon see the decision as a due recognition of Samsung’s role as a major player in the global race for chip supremacy and the industry’s importance to South Korea’s export-driven economy. welcomed the

“Samsung’s core businesses, such as semiconductors, require huge and high-risk investments, so a timely decision by top management is important,” Kim said. “In this respect, the amnesty could have a positive impact on the economy.”

In a July poll conducted by the current affairs magazine Sisign, 69% of respondents said they supported Lee’s pardon.

Sisaine attributes the strong support for the amnesty to the public perception that Lee is contributing to the economy as the leader of the country’s flagship company.

In 2009, when Samsung patriarch Lee Gun-hee received a second presidential pardon after being convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion, then-President Lee Myung-bak slammed a businessman into South Korea’s bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. justified the decisions necessary to allow the participation of

Lee, who is not related to the Samsun family, was later imprisoned on corruption charges and was not a candidate for the pardon.

Samsung logo on the glass window.
Samsung is South Korea’s largest employer, and many in the country regard the company as something of a national icon. [File: Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters]

For detractors, Samsung’s relentless ability to avoid accountability for serious crimes sends a dangerous message to the leaders of the conglomerates that control the economy.

“The amnesty weakens the rule of law and makes conglomerate leaders appear above the rule of law,” Yang Jun-seok, an economics professor at the Catholic University, told Al Jazeera.

A Samsung Electronics labor union issued a statement condemning the amnesty, saying it implicitly endorsed the company’s anti-union stance.

“Lee Jae-yong’s amnesty symbolizes the completion of Samsung’s whitewashing strategy to reverse the punishment of those responsible,” the group said in a statement.

South Koreans are waiting to see if Mr. Lee’s freedom will bring him economic benefits. In a statement on Friday, Li said he respected the consideration shown by the government and the people and “will contribute to the economy with continued investment and job creation.”

Yang said Lee will make moves that give the impression that he is boosting the South Korean economy, at least in the short term.

“Samsung may need to go ahead with its promised investment because Lee feels obliged morally or to do something that can improve the economic situation,” Yang said.

On August 9, 2022, a bridge was submerged in the Han River in Seoul, South Korea after torrential rains the previous day.
South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol’s popularity plummets amid a string of challenges including floods that have killed more than a dozen people [File: Reuters]

By pardoning Lee, career prosecutor Yoon may have been trying to create a mild but positive economic momentum. It has been plagued by scandals and accidents. Earlier this month, his approval rating dropped from his 44% in June to his 29%.

Yoon’s early accomplishments, which took office with no political experience, confirm some critics’ concerns that he was unprepared for the country’s highest office.

The education minister he picked recently resigned after announcing a policy to lower the starting age of school by one year sparked sustained backlash, and heavy rains in Seoul this week caused massive flooding, leaving the country in a state of turmoil for more than a year. He publicly apologized after causing harm…more than a dozen deaths.

Analysts say that despite facing general pressure, Yoon is unlikely to face too much scrutiny for his decision to pardon Samsung’s scions.

“Lee’s pardon is in line with Korean business tradition,” Geoffery Cain, author of “Samsung Rising” and senior fellow in Critical Emerging Technologies at the Lincoln Network, told Al Jazeera.

Past presidents, most notably former President Yoon Moon Jae-in, have expressed a desire to reduce the power of Samsung and other companies, but ultimately agreed with their dominance in South Korean business.

“South Korea’s leaders made many attempts to undermine power or dismantle conglomerates, but they were so vital to the economy that they all failed.” , means we are in control of the entire supply chain, from raw materials to finished chips, ships and products.”

“Though zaibatsu may be involved in corruption and abuse of power, they are stable, powerful and able to withstand economic shocks,” he added.