The 2 1/2 year prison sentence given to Lee Jae-yong, leader of the Samsung business group convicted of bribery, is to end in July next year. Speculations are rising over whether President Moon Jae-in will keep the richest man in South Korea in jail as long as he remains in the Blue House, or give the 51-year-old a special pardon using his prerogative.
Calls for Lee’s early release are coming from individuals and organizations that cite the need for his role in helping revive the national economy from the devastating impact of COVID-19. They speak of the possibility of exchanging semiconductor chips for coronavirus vaccines, which can be better pushed under direct leadership of the corporate leader, who has global connections.
Public support for Lee’s freedom has been growing since Samsung Electronics, the flagship company of the business empire, announced plans to pay an astronomical amount of inheritance tax, make huge cash donations for health care programs and deliver a vast collection of artwork to the public sector. Initial calculations put the total value at 22 trillion won (approximately $20 billion).
Still, it’s entirely up to President Moon, who is entering the final year of his five-year tenure next week. During the next 12 months, he will do anything he deems useful for an extension of Democratic Party rule and will be reluctant to do something that may be detrimental to achieving that goal. Then, will the release of Lee Jae-yong from jail help the continuation of the leftists’ hold on power, or to the contrary?
One thing that we missed in Moon’s presidency over the last four years was boldness as a national leader to set realistic objectives and make utmost efforts to persuade the people to pursue them. Instead, we have witnessed him choosing unrealistic and rather fantastic policies such as “income-led growth” in the economy and “South-North detente” in national security, while making deceptive claims of progress to the people.
With regard to the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Moon’s government led the people to a premature complacency after initial success in keeping infections down in some areas but the authorities have failed to secure vaccines from foreign manufacturers in time. Vaccination schedules for different age brackets have been changed because of import delays amidst a worldwide scramble for the preventive drugs.
There were reports that Lee Jae-yong, even while remaining behind bars, used his personal ties with Shantanu Narayen, chairman of the US software company Adobe, who is also an independent director of Pfizer, to help Korean authorities reach a vaccine supply deal with the US drugmaker earlier this year. Information like this indicates public distrust in the government’s ability to ensure universal vaccination and achieve “herd immunity” sometime in November as they promised.
People have maintained an ambivalent attitude toward top conglomerates like Samsung, the locomotives of Korea’s economic development, in recent decades. Feeling proud that Samsung smartphones and semiconductors control the global market, they are uneasy when they are told that the combined sales of the 22 affiliates of the Samsung Group alone account for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s annual gross domestic product.
The 12 trillion-won inheritance tax to be paid by Lee Jae-yong and his family from the death of Lee Kun-hee in October last year amounts to more than three times the total collection of inheritance taxes during the whole of 2020. This shows the prodigious share of the Samsung Empire in Korean economy, awareness of which incurs grave public awe and concerns about the increasing territory and influence of the conglomerate.
When an independent counsel arrested Lee Jae-yong in its probe into wrongdoings by former president Park Geun-hye and her close confidante Choi Soon-sil, many people anticipated exposure of an immense scale of corruption. When the trial ended last January with the Supreme Court’s final sentence of 2 1/2 years’ imprisonment for 8.7 billion won ($7.8 million) in bribes, or solicited donations including a racehorse, many questioned the appropriateness of the punishment.
The announcement of the Lee family’s inheritance tax plan once again drew attention to Korea’s exorbitant tax rate of 50 percent plus a 20 percent premium for corporate inheritance, which makes it as high as 60 percent of the bequeathed assets, undoubtedly the highest in the world. Pundits compared it to zero in Sweden (down from 70 percent in 2005), 11 percent of the actual rate after corporate deductions in Japan and 4.5 percent in Germany.
Petitions for Lee’s release reached the Blue House from many individuals and groups, including the heads of the five national economic organizations and unlikely bodies such as the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, recommending a special pardon on Buddha’s Birthday or National Day on Aug. 15. A public signature campaign collected tens of thousands of names in a petition to the presidential office.
An opinion poll taken by WinGKorea Consulting showed 69.7 percent of the respondents were in favor of clemency on Lee. Chin Jung-kwon, a liberal commentator reputed for his poignant attack on current power holders, argued that a business group with a total annual sale of 230 trillion won, or nearly a half of the year’s national budget of 469 trillion won, deserves due recognition as breadwinners for the whole nation.
Not too many days should go by before President Moon decides on what to do with the Samsung head if he is seeking to have any political gains from Lee’s case. The Blue House says that any presidential decision will be made on the basis of national consensus. It is a convenient way of evading a resolute action as the national leader.
Additionally, there is the Yoon Seok-youl factor to be considered. Yoon was the key member in the Park Young-soo independent counsel team that prosecuted Lee Jae-yong in the investigation of the Choi Soon-sil scandal in 2017. Yoon has emerged as a major potential presidential candidate from the opposition, and strategists around President Moon must be studying the possible impact of pardoning Lee against the backdrop of a hazy presidential race.
If Lee becomes a free man, it will help Yoon a bit because he could somewhat shake off the burden of having put him into jail. It is unfortunate that Lee Jae-yong, despite his great wealth, has been a little prop on the stage of Korea’s power politics.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times during the 1990s. -- Ed.