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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 4)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:07 June 04, 2021

Debate over clemency
Public consensus key to pardoning Samsung chief

President Moon Jae-in has touched off a debate over whether to grant a special pardon for Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who is serving a prison term after being found guilty of bribery in a corruption scandal surrounding former President Park Geun-hye. The debate started Wednesday, when Moon made remarks insinuating that he might issue a pardon based on the social consensus forming around the issue.

The remarks came during a luncheon meeting with the leaders of the country's four largest conglomerates ― Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG ― at Cheong Wa Dae. SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, concurrently serving as head of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), reminded Moon of the business lobby's recommendation of a presidential pardon for Lee. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Kim Ki-nam also stressed the need to "grant clemency" to Lee.

In response, President Moon was quoted as saying that he "understands the difficulty." He added, "There are many people who sympathize with it." These remarks were interpreted as hinting that he was considering setting Lee free under a presidential grant of amnesty. Some conservative and pro-business media outlets reported on the possibility of Moon pardoning Lee on the occasion of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day.

However, Cheong Wa Dae has tried to downplay this possibility, saying that the President has yet to accept the business leaders' recommendation. Nevertheless, Moon's remarks signaled a change from his previous position that he was skeptical about such a pardon. In a press conference marking the fourth anniversary of his inauguration May 10, he said he would decide on the matter after listening to the voices of the people.

In this context, it is difficult to rule out the possibility of a presidential pardon for Lee completely. The KCCI and four other business organizations are strongly lobbying for Lee's release in order to help speed up economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During the luncheon, Moon expressed his gratitude to the business leaders who accompanied him during his recent trip to Washington, D.C., for his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. The CEOs announced plans to invest a combined $39.4 billion (44 trillion won) in the production of semiconductors, electric cars and EV batteries in America, contributing to the successful outcome of the Moon-Biden summit.

The business community has argued that Lee, the de facto head of the Samsung Group, should return to work to lead the IT giant amid escalating global competition in the semiconductor industry. Their stance is understandable given the rapidly changing economic and business situation at home and abroad.

Yet, President Moon needs to take a cautious approach toward pardoning Lee. A public consensus appears to hold the key to the issue; but unions and civic groups are against such a pardon. Moon could also risk breaking his own amnesty rules, which exclude people imprisoned on convictions of bribery, embezzlement and breaches of trust from presidential pardons. He should not abuse his presidential right and must ensure the rule of law to create a fair and just society.

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