South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pardoned Samsung conglomerate heir Lee Jae-yong in an amnesty.

The pardon is largely symbolic because Lee was released on parole a year ago.

In a country that critics also call the Samsung Republic, the decision fuels the discussion about the influence of the large family-run conglomerates, the chaebols, on politics.

Among the Hyundai, LG, Lotte and SK conglomerates, Samsung is the largest.

Patrick Welter

Correspondent for business and politics in Japan based in Tokyo.

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Yoon pardoned another 1,692 convicts, including Shin Dong-bin, the head of the Lotte group.

The pardons are effective from Monday, the National Liberation Day of Korea.

The government justified the pardon of the top managers with their importance for innovation and new jobs at a time when South Korea is recovering from an economic crisis.

This is a rationale South Korea has used for decades to pardon convicted chaebol leaders.

Samsung's Lee pledged in a statement to contribute to the economy through investment and job creation, and to give back to the people and government for their expectations.

No mercy for Lee Myung-bak

Another prominent convict, former President Lee Myung-bak, was denied the expected pardon on Liberation Day, probably for political reasons.

President Yoon is said to have decided against it at short notice after its popularity suffered drastically in the first three months.

According to a recent poll, only 24 percent of South Koreans are satisfied with the conservative president, who only took office in May after a narrow election victory.

Lee Myung-bak, who ruled from 2008 to 2013, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption and embezzlement.

The 80-year-old politician and former Huyndai executive is currently out of prison due to health problems.

The pardon allows Samsung heir Lee to conduct business for the Samsung group without restrictions.

The suspended prison sentence in the corruption case ended in July, but restrictions on his economic activities were still in place.

But Lee had recently shown a greater presence in public.

In May, he welcomed Yoon and US President Joe Biden to a Samsung semiconductor factory in Pyeongtaek.


second case against Samsung's Lee is ongoing

The Samsung heir is legally not finally off the hook.

Irrespective of the current pardon, proceedings are still pending against him for fraud and share price manipulation.

It involves a merger of two group companies, which many believe served to increase Lee's influence over the group companies in preparation for generational change in the founding family.

This procedure requires him to be present at the court sessions each week.

Lee took over the strategic leadership of the Samsung Group in 2014 after his father Lee Kun-hee had been bedridden with a heart attack ever since.

The grandson of the Samsung founder stayed out of day-to-day business decisions, but influenced long-term decisions about investments and direction towards new business areas.

His influence at Samsung is based on equity holdings in the group's key companies.

With his international contacts, Lee is also considered important for relationships with foreign business partners.

In South Korea, after the pardon, speculation is now that Lee, who is listed as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, could take over the title of chairman of Samsung Electronics.

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In 2017, Lee was initially sentenced to five years in prison for bribery in connection with the corruption scandal involving former conservative President Park Geun-hye, which was later reduced to two and a half years.

The indictment and conviction of Lee, who is now 54, was seen as a symbol of left-liberal President Moon Jae-in's decisive will to take action against the power and influence of the large family-run conglomerates in South Korea, the chaebols.

The Samsung conglomerate is the country's largest corporate group.

The economic core is Samsung Electronics, the largest manufacturer of smartphones and electronic memory components.

The end of the Park Geun-hye corruption scandal

In an unusual step, Moon's government then suspended Lee's sentence on probation last August, also with reference to the manager's economic importance.

Even the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea spoke out in favor of Lee's release so that Samsung, as an important American partner, could become more active in the supply of semiconductors.

In a way, South Korea's pardoning of Samsung vice chairman and Lotte Group chief is drawing a line under the scandal surrounding former President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in 2017 for abuse of office after months of protests by hundreds of thousands of people.

Like Lee, Lotte sentenced Shin to two and a half years in prison for his involvement in the Park bribery scandal.

Park herself was pardoned last December by then-President Moon Jae-in, her successor.