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[Editorial] Lee’s apology and promise

Pledges by heir of Samsung Electronics must serve as occasion for another leap

Samsung Electronics heir and Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong apologized Wednesday in connection with his controversial succession of management and Samsung’s labor issues.

It is not a pleasing sight for the top manager of South Korea’s flagship business to bow low for an apology while being tried for more than three years now.

His apology signals drastic changes for Samsung.

Lee vowed not to hand over management control of the tech giant to his children. It is rare for owners of Korean business conglomerates to publicly renounce leaving managerial control to their children.

He promised to scrap the principle of managing Samsung without labor unions. Also pledging to guarantee workers three primary rights (to organize unions, bargain collectively and act collectively). It is a bold decision to throw out the principle that Samsung has kept for more than 80 years since its foundation in 1938.

The right to organize a labor union is guaranteed by law, but Korean labor movement is associated more with unreasonable violent strikes rather than with reasonable dialogue. There are concerns that unions may cost Samsung its international competitiveness.

His apology conformed with demands by a committee of outside persons to monitor whether Samsung complies with laws.

Lee faces a trial in a high court on charges of bribing former President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil with an intent of succeeding the management rights.

The first trial court sentenced Lee to five years in jail and put him behind bars. The second trial court regarded Lee as a “victim of bribery coercion,” sentencing 2 1/2 years in jail with a stay of execution with four years and releasing him. But the Supreme Court sent back the case to the high court by ruling that Lee had made “illegal requests.” Furthermore, it raised the amount of money considered as bribery.

In October, last year, the high court proposed Lee set up a system to watch whether Samsung observes laws, and Lee launched the monitoring committee in February.

Without the Park and Choi scandal, such an apology would have been unforeseen. It would be impossible for any Korean company to refuse demands from the president. If it refuses, it will be persecuted. Of course, Samsung and Lee have problems, but few would say for sure that there are no problems with Korean politics.

During a trial late last year, Judge Jeong Joon-young of the high court asked Lee to work out group-wide plans to be able to refuse politicians’ bribery demands.

Samsung is beset with tough challenges amid an economic shock from COVID-19 that is likely to be protracted. As Lee said, competition is becoming ever fiercer and the rules of game are changing rapidly.

A strong leadership is needed to overcome waves of difficulties and find a new field of growth. Only the most competent manager can guarantee the survival of Samsung. Lee said he would not pass on managerial control to his children, but it is concerning whether professional managers could steer Samsung as responsibly as its owner.

In a dire economic situation, Samsung’s vision and role as Korea’s largest company are all the more important. It already holds the world’s leading competitiveness in many areas. It accounts for 20 percent of Korea’s exports and pays more than 10 trillion won ($8 billion) in corporate taxes each year. There is no talking about Korea’s economic growth without Samsung’s contributions.

Lee’s apology must serve as an occasion for Samsung and the Korean economy to take another leap. Politicians and the government must shed anti-business sentiment and support Samsung to ensure it can devote itself to reviving and growing the national economy. The court and the prosecution should complete trials and investigations as quickly as possible.

His apology and pledges herald the dawn of a new era. Samsung is on track to be reborn as a business entity with a new level of innovation and better communication with the people.