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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on April 30)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:03 April 30, 2021

Due consideration
Calls for Lee Jae-yong's early release from jail have a convincing argument

The heirs of late Samsung Group chief Lee Kun-hee announced Wednesday they would pay more than 12 trillion won ($10.8 billion) in inheritance tax, the largest in the country's history. The amount is about three times as large as the total inheritance taxes collected in South Korea last year.

Lee, who died in October, is survived by his wife, only son, Jae-yong, and two daughters. He left assets estimated to top 26 trillion won, including around 19 trillion won in stocks in key companies affiliated with the nation's biggest conglomerate.

In the announcement made through Samsung Electronics, the flagship company of the business group, his heirs also said they would return a significant part of the late tycoon's wealth to society.

One trillion won will be donated to help the nation fight epidemic diseases and to support children suffering from cancer and other rare illnesses.

Around 23,000 art pieces from Lee's collections, including national treasures and famous paintings, including those by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Claude Monet, will be donated to museums and other art centers in the country. Experts estimated the total value of the artworks to be donated at almost 2 trillion won.

The announcement comes amid rising calls for the release of the late Lee's jailed son, who is vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and the de facto head of the conglomerate.

The heirs and Samsung executives might well hope the plans for massive donations designed to provide medical and cultural benefits for people in addition to huge inheritance tax payments would help forge a more favorable atmosphere for setting Lee Jae-yong free.

He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison by the Seoul High Court in January in a retrial of a bribery case involving former President Park Geun-hye. He was put behind bars again less than three years after he was allowed to walk free.

Given the prison time he has already served, he will be released in July next year, unless he is granted a pardon or another form of commutation.

Concerns have grown here that his long absence from the helm of Samsung Electronics, the world's largest memory chip producer and No. 2 player in the foundry sector, will be detrimental to the national economy. Voices have also been raised that he should be allowed to play a role in promoting the national interest in a broader sense, including securing more coronavirus vaccines, by capitalizing on his international connections and influence.

Petitions for Lee's pardon have recently been made in various circles, from religious to civic and business sectors.

In the latest such move, the country's five major business organizations on Monday submitted a petition for his pardon to the presidential office. They noted in a joint letter that the country's semiconductor industry might lose its world-leading status if Samsung Electronics continues to delay investment and other key business decisions due to Lee's absence. Many people now appear to share this sense of urgency.

President Moon Jae-in's administration has been discreet over Lee's pardon. In response to the latest petition, a Cheong Wa Dae official said the government had not considered granting Lee a pardon and had no plan to do so for now.

Certainly it is one of key principles underpinning a democratic republic that no one should be subject to legal benefits or discrimination.

But the Moon government has a growing room to consider the early release of Lee, given the increasing public sentiment in favor of taking the measure.

If it is politically burdensome for Moon to grant a special presidential pardon to Lee, consideration may be given to releasing him on parole. A recent public opinion poll showed nearly 70 percent of the respondents agreed to parole him.

What is notable is that about half of them believe Lee became a scapegoat in the Moon administration's campaign to sweep what it viewed as wrongdoings under the previous administrations.

In handing down jail sentence to Lee, the court judged that he made a request "in a tacit way" to former President Park to help him take the managerial control of Samsung Group. Critics say the ruling was grounded on an ambiguous concept that goes against the principle of a court's judgment on criminal cases having to be based on solid evidence.

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