The Korea Herald


Moon’s subtle tone shift revives hopes for Samsung chief’s early release

By Song Su-hyun

Published : May 10, 2021 - 15:55

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Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap) Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)

In a subtle but noteworthy change of tone, President Moon Jae-in on Monday spoke of the mounting challenges facing South Korean chipmakers when asked about the fate of the jailed Samsung Electronics chief Lee Jae-yong.

“It is a clear fact that we need to further enhance the competitiveness of our semiconductor industry, with global competition on chips intensifying,” Moon told reporters in a nationally televised press conference.

He then added that he also has to consider the question of fairness, related precedents, and public consensus. “I will make a decision after paying sufficient attention to the public opinion.”

He also spoke similarly about the possibility of pardoning two former presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman and de-facto chief Lee is currently serving a 2 1/2-year prison term for bribing former President Park. He will be jailed until July 2022, unless he is pardoned. The tycoon is standing another court trial on charges including a breach of the capital market law.

Calls have mounted recently for his early release, with proponents arguing Samsung needs strong leadership to navigate through the challenges facing the global chip industry amid the US-China trade row.

Monday’s remarks by Moon sparked speculation that he may be warming up to the possibility of a presidential pardon being granted to Lee.

Until January, Moon had maintained a firm stance on calls for amnesty for any of the three jailed figures. When asked during his New Year’s press conference, Moon said: “This is not the right time to talk about pardons.”

But in April, the president was reported to have said that he felt “heartbroken” about the two jailed former presidents during a luncheon with Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and Busan Mayor Park Hyung-joon, in which he emphasized the need for a public consensus.

The same month, the nation’s major business lobby groups have submitted a joint petition to the Blue House, asking Moon to positively consider pardoning Lee. Allowing Lee’s return to the office would serve the country better, given the rapidly-changing chip industry environment, than keeping him in jail, they argued.

“Samsung’s initial plan to announce its investment in the third Pyeongtaek plant was postponed after Lee was put behind bars on Jan. 18,” an industry insider said.

Samsung hasn’t still made any announcement about its new investment plans, either in Korea or the United States.

“It is true that Samsung can operate as usual even with the void at the helm, but it is also undeniable that it cannot quickly make large-scale investment decisions without the chief,” an industry watcher said.

Industry watchers forecast that Samsung will soon break ground for the P3 plant in Korea, which would require capital expenditures of up to 50 trillion won ($44.89 billion), and for a foundry plant in Austin, Texas, estimated to be worth $17 billion won.

By Song Su-hyun (