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Politicians raise voices in support of Samsung chief

President Moon’s remarks suggesting possibility of pardon draw mixed reactions from lawmakers

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong heads to court to attend a hearing at the Seoul High Court in Seocho-gu, Seoul, in January. (Yonhap)
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong heads to court to attend a hearing at the Seoul High Court in Seocho-gu, Seoul, in January. (Yonhap)
Some politicians have raised their voices in support of granting clemency to jailed Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, after remarks from President Moon Jae-in appeared to open up that possibility.

Earlier this month, Moon said he would “judge after hearing many opinions from the public,” suggesting Lee might be pardoned. He had taken a different tone at a New Year’s press conference, saying, “Now is not the time to say pardon.”

In his more recent statement he said, “Not only (people) in the business world but also in the religious circle are sending a lot of petitions for such pardons. It is clear that we need to increase our competitiveness in the semiconductor industry as chip competition is intensifying globally.”

Lee was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for bribery in January in a high-profile case involving former President Park Geun-hye. Since that time, conservative politicians have called for a pardon for Lee on the grounds that this would boost the nation’s economy and its chip sector.

Kim Gi-hyeon, floor leader of the main opposition People Power Party, told reporters last week after meeting with Samsung Electronics executives, “We should look at the issue broadly in terms of a matter related to the development of a country.”

He added, “We believe that quick and bold decisions will be needed to secure global competitiveness centered on Korea’s chip industry and respond well to intensifying competition among countries.”

Hearing Moon’s latest remarks, some politicians from the ruling party have also supported a pardon for Lee.

Lee Kwang-jae of the Democratic Party of Korea, who is preparing to run for president, said in a local TV interview last week that he favored a pardon for the Samsung chief. It was the first official statement on the issue from any of the ruling party’s heavyweights.

“Vaccines and semiconductors are at the peak of global technology competition,” he said. “If Lee has a role, I think it’s time to positively review the pardon.”

Earlier this month, another Democratic Party lawmaker, Lee Won-wook, said in a local radio interview that the government should think more actively about pardoning Lee Jae-yong as a way to overcome the chip crisis in a very unstable economy during the pandemic.

Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, a presidential front-runner who had strongly opposed a pardon for the Samsung chief, also appeared to be stepping back.

On the matter of granting clemency to two former presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, as well as Samsung chief Lee, Gov. Lee said, “Highly political judgment is required for the pardon issue,” adding that the president was expected to make a reasonable decision that respected the public’s wishes.

But on the whole, politicians from the ruling bloc remain cautious.

Rep. Park Yong-jin of the Democratic Party of Korea criticized Gov. Lee for changing his position.

“(Gov. Lee) had urged and pressed other candidates to co-declare no pardon for the presidential corruption scandal that included Lee Jae-yong right before a 2017 presidential election,” Park said in a message on Facebook on Friday. “But I’ve heard recently that he’s taking a step back.

“No matter how important the vote is and how important presidential power is, it isn’t what it isn’t,” he said.

Another Democratic Party lawmaker, Yoon Gun-young, said last week that Lee Jae-yong was “not a magic bullet in vaccines,” responding to some claims that the Samsung chief should be pardoned as a way to secure COVID-19 vaccines.

Former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a recent radio interview that it was hard to see a public consensus on the matter of granting a pardon.

“Many people seem to think that Lee’s pardon is necessary to make large investments on non-memory chips,” he said, still adding that he didn’t think there was a full consensus yet.

According to a recent poll, the majority of the public favored a pardon for Lee Jae-yong. Hangil Research asked 1,010 voters aged 18 or older nationwide early this month, and 68.4 percent of the respondents said they supported the idea.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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