Not two years ago, Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee was a figure in disgrace: his home and office were raided by police looking for evidence Lee had used a company slush fund to bribe South Korean politicians, judges, and prosecutors. Lee resigned the chairmanship in April 2008, and by July was given a suspended jail term for tax evasion, but cleared on charges he had hidden money by transferring it to his children.
But Lee is back: in December of last year the South Korean government pardoned Lee in exchange for his help launching Pyeongchang’s bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games as a member of the International Olympics Committee. And now Lee is the head of Samsung Electronics, Samsung’s flagship company.
Lee’s father was the founder of the Samsung group, which has grown into a massive business conglomerate with businesses spanning everything from finance to construction to maritime transport, although Samsung Electronics is the heart of the company’s operations. Lee is routinely cited as South Korea’s richest man, and he remains Samsung’s largest individual shareholder.
Lee apparently sees his role at the head of Samsung Electronics as finding new growth areas for Samsung as the electronics industry tries to emerge from a global economic crisis—one that Samsung weathered reasonably well, growing major businesses in flat-panel televisions, memory chips, and mobile phones. Nonetheless, Lee pointed to dark clouds: “We are facing a real crisis,” Lee said in an English-language statement released by Samsung. “Many global companies are experiencing enormous challenge and uncertainty of the future, and Samsung is no exception.”
Pardons for major South Korean industrial figures aren’t that uncommon: last year, the South Korean government pardoned the chairman of Hyundai Motors following an embezzlement conviction. However, the country has been strongly criticized for its tolerance of crimes committed by the heads of its large family-run industrial enterprises.
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