By Dogyun Kim and Joyce Lee
UIWANG, South Korea (Reuters) -Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee, convicted of bribery and embezzlement, was released on parole on Friday, with hopes high at the tech giant that he will soon be back at work.
There has been strong support for his parole amongst the business community and the public amid anxiety that major strategic decisions are not being made at the world’s biggest memory chip and smartphone manufacturer. Civic groups, however, have slammed his release as another sign of leniency for the country’s business elite.
Lee, 53, appeared outside the Seoul Detention Center, wearing a dark grey suit and looking much thinner than when he was last detained in January. Convicted of bribing a friend of former President Park Geun-hye, he served 18 months of a revised 30 month sentence.
Lee went straight to Samsung headquarters after his release.
President Moon Jae-in’s office said in a statement on Friday that decision to parole Lee was made in the national interest and called for understanding from the public.
“We are well aware that there are supporting and opposing views on Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee’s parole. The views of the people who are opposed are also right,” it said.
“On the other hand, there have been many people who called for his parole in this severe crisis, hoping that he will help the country with respect to semiconductors and vaccines.”
Before he can resume work, however, Lee must gain separate justice ministry approval, though the decision is expected to be a formality.
“His release is expected to speed up the decision-making that comes with Lee’s job such as M&A and group restructuring,” said Lee Kyungmook, professor at Seoul National University Graduate School of Business.
“The point of releasing Lee was for him to run the business.”
Samsung declined to comment on when he might resume work.
Although South Korea’s biggest conglomerate has three CEOs in charge of its main divisions and its day-to-day operations have not been affected by Lee’s absence, company sources say major investments which pool resources from all the divisions should only be made by Lee.
In particular, he is expected to make a final call on the location of a $17 billion U.S. plant that will produce advanced logic chips.
In a symbolic move that appeared timed to coincide with his release, Samsung on Thursday made good on a promise by Lee with an announcement that it had signed its first-agreements with four company labour unions which cover the provisions of offices and assurances that union activities will be allowed.
Lee vowed in May 2020 to improve labour rights at the tech giant. A raft of Samsung employees have been found guilty of sabotaging labour union activities.
Lee initially served one year of a five-year sentence from August 2017 which was later suspended. That court decision was then overturned and while the sentence was shortened, he was sent back to jail in January this year.
His parole comes after the Justice Ministry last month eased eligibility guidelines for first-time offenders with good behaviour like Lee to about 60% of sentence term served. The average eligible time for all criminals in South Korea was 80% prior to the easing.
Lee’s legal woes have not been confined to the bribery conviction. He is also on trial accused of accounting fraud and stock price manipulation connected to a 2015 merger of two Samsung companies.
The first hearing of a separate case in which he has been accused of unlawfully using a sedative is expected on Sep. 7.
Lee has denied the accusations in both cases.
(Reporting by Dogyun Kim and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Sunghyuk An and Heekyong Yang; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)