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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 11)

All News 07:05 August 11, 2021

Mixed response to parole
: Samsung should cut corrupt ties, raise transparency

Jailed Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong will be released on parole Friday. He is one of 810 prisoners to benefit from parole on the occasion of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day. But Lee's parole is drawing a mixed reaction from the business community and the public.

Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said Monday that his ministry decided to set Lee free after taking into account the country's economic situation and the condition of the global economy amid the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. The decision is apparently aimed at allowing Lee, the de facto leader of Korea's largest conglomerate, to play an active role in riding out the fallout from the unprecedented public health crisis and help speed up an economic recovery.

There appears to be no problems with the decision as Lee has met the legal requirements for parole. He has served 60 percent of his 30-month prison term since he was convicted on charges of offering 8.6 billion won ($7.5 million) in bribes to then President Park Geun-hye and her longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil.

Yet Lee will find it difficult to return to his leadership position at Samsung immediately, because he was found guilty of embezzling company funds to pay the bribes. Anyone convicted of embezzling 500 million won or more is banned from working for companies related to their crimes for five years after serving out a jail term.

But Lee is expected to make major decisions on Samsung's large-scale investments and plans for mergers and acquisitions. So he can actually lead the global IT giant to beef up its flagship semiconductor business. His release will thus give a boost to his ambitious plan to invest $17 billion in the U.S. to construct foundry lines. His leadership role is urgently needed to enable Samsung Electronics to engage in an ever-intensifying global competition with its rivals such as TSMC of Taiwan as well as Intel and Micron Technology of the U.S.

The country's major business organizations including the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) and the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) welcomed the ministry's decision to free Lee on parole. But unions and civic groups are strongly against the decision, although recent opinion polls showed over 60 percent of Koreans were in favor of his release.

The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), a leading NGO here, lashed out at the Moon Jae-in government for providing parole for Lee who it claimed was ineligible. It described the decision as "preferential treatment" toward the owner of a family-run business conglomerate, or chaebol. It pointed out that Lee should not be freed because he is still standing trial over charges of illicitly orchestrating a merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries and accounting fraud involving Samsung Biologics. He was also indicted for the illegal use of propofol, an anesthesia-inducing drug. Most of all Lee's parole could risk undermining the principle that everyone is equal before the law.

Lee should accept such criticism humbly. He needs to realize that his parole cannot legitimize his wrongdoings. Thus he and Samsung must make genuine efforts to break their corrupt ties with bureaucrats and politicians, raise managerial transparency and accountability, and enhance compliance practices. Only then can Samsung emerge as a real global leader and regain the public's trust.

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