Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong walks free on parole

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong walked free from prison Friday after he was granted parole, about 11 months before scheduled release.

The de facto leader of Samsung Group walked out of the Seoul Detention Center in a southern suburb of Seoul at 10 a.m. Friday. He is one of 810 prisoners scheduled for release Friday as part of South Korea’s annual tradition of clemency for Liberation Day, which falls on Sunday.

“I apologize for causing this much concern to fellow citizens,” Lee told reporters upon exiting the correctional facility. “I am well aware of concerns, criticism, worries and big hopes on me. I will live up to them.”

The Ministry of Justice said it decided to grant parole to Lee after taking into consideration the current conditions in the global business environment.

Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said he also endorsed Lee’s release based on public sentiment and his conduct in prison. Lee had spent 18 months of his 30-month sentence in prison, meeting the Justice Ministry’s minimum requirement of having served 60 percent of an inmate’s total jail term to be eligible for parole.

He was put behind bars in January after the Seoul High Court sentenced him to 2 1/2 years in prison for paying 8.68 billion won ($7.43 million) in bribes to former President Park Geun-hye. He had already spent almost a year behind bars when the ruling was made.

Releasing Lee on parole or granting him a special pardon has been a highly contested topic.

His release was believed to be aimed at vitalizing the struggling economy, as Samsung Group, without its leader at the helm, appeared to have slowed down on making decisions on business initiatives. 

The Samsung heir is required to abide by parole conditions, which means he has to report to the parole office in advance if he plans to move residences or leave the country for more than a month. Lee is not qualified for exemptions of these conditions.

Yet Lee faces hurdles in returning to his role at Samsung Electronics, as he is bound by a five-year employment ban. An order based on the Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Specific Economic Crimes prohibits those convicted of embezzling more than 500 million won from being employed by any entities that were linked to the crime.

Lee lost his board seat at Samsung Electronics in 2019 and will have to apply for an exemption with the Ministry of Justice to lift the restriction. But the Justice Ministry had said prior to Lee’s release that it has no plans in doing so.

By Ko Jun-tae (