President Moon Jae-in, who has so far excluded businesspeople when exercising his power to pardon criminals, may be mulling an exception for Lee Jae-yong, the imprisoned de facto leader of Samsung Group.
According to Cheong Wa Dae sources, a subtle shift in the president’s tone was detected Wednesday at a luncheon meeting at the presidential office with the heads of the nation’s four largest conglomerates -- Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Kim Ki-nam, Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Euisun, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo.
He invited the leaders of the so-called “Big 4” groups to the luncheon to brief them on his recent summit with President Joe Biden and follow-up measures to support businesses.
During the meeting, Chey, who doubles as chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, first brought up the issue of a pardon for the Samsung chief as he discussed the difficulties facing businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Samsung’s Kim also stressed the role of a company’s leader in making a huge investment decision in the semiconductor industry.
“I understand your concerns. There are also many people who share that view,” the president was quoted as saying by a ranking Cheong Wa Dae official who wished to be unnamed. “Now, at a time when the business environment is changing in unprecedented ways, I'm well aware that bolder action is required for businesses.”
The possible shift in tone comes amid mounting calls for a pardon for Lee, who is serving prison time for bribery. In recent public opinion polls, almost 70 percent of respondents said they were in favor of a pardon, citing his leadership role in leading the nation's largest business empire.
Moon, who has maintained a prudent approach to issuing pardons, has also stressed that public consensus was the key consideration even though he can use the power at his own discretion.
Another senior Cheong Wa Dae official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “It is unclear whether Moon will be using his pardoning power. It is the president’s sole discretion. But I feel the overall atmosphere is changing more recently.”
If the president decides to pardon Lee, it will likely happen on Aug. 15, when South Korea marks Liberation Day. In Korea, it is a tradition for presidents to grant pardons on that day, along with Christmas.
Previously, the four conglomerates unveiled plans to invest a combined 41 trillion won ($40 billion) in the US on the occasion of the Moon-Biden summit in Washington on May 21.
Samsung alone pledged to invest $17 billion to build a semiconductor facility, a timely announcement for the US president, who aims to build a US-led global supply chain for high-tech industries, especially chips.
During the luncheon, Moon reiterated his gratitude over the investment plans.
“Korea may have been a beneficiary of the relationship with the US in the past,” he said. “But now the two countries have become partners sharing cutting-edge technologies like chips, batteries and biomedicines. The four groups (that you represent) have played a key role.”
By Lee Ji-yoon (email@example.com