Imprisoned Samsung Vice Chairman and de facto leader Lee Jae-yong could walk out free soon. According to the Korean media, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is open to the idea of granting a presidential pardon to Lee amid the ongoing global semiconductor chip shortage.
This comes after five major South Korean business lobby groups officially submitted a petition for Lee’s pardon to Cheong Wa Dae, aka the Blue House – the official residence of the South Korean President – last month. They argued that his absence is hurting Samsung’s investment plans.
At a time when the tech industry is facing an unprecedented chip shortage globally, Samsung needs to lead a cumulative effort to tackle this problem. After all, it is the world’s largest memory chip producer and the second-biggest player in the foundry sector, behind Taiwan’s TSMC. Naturally, it is also South Korea’s leading semiconductor company and a driving force in the nation’s economy.
However, a leadership vacuum means Samsung is finding it hard to come to a decision about its investment plans. The company is looking to invest $17 billion to build a new chip manufacturing plant in the US. It is seeing sites in Texas, Arizona, and New York but is still pending a decision on that.
This delay ultimately affects the chip industry as a whole. On top of that, it also allows Samsung’s rivals to edge ahead. As such, South Korean businesses fear that the country may lose its status in the semiconductor industry. They want the President to step in and pardon Lee so he could facilitate Samsung’s investment plans. And it appears President Moon isn’t opposed to the idea.
Lee Jae-yong could get a presidential pardon
According to reports coming from Korea, Cheong Wa Dae has received several petitions asking for Lee’s release from jail. Apart from the aforementioned five business lobby groups, officials from other sectors including religious groups and civic activists have also reportedly filed such petitions. President Moon is now reviewing the matter.
“The global competition for semiconductors is intensifying and it is true that we need to enhance competitiveness in the chip industry,” Moon said. However, a pardon “is not something a president can decide easily to suit oneself”. As such, he will take into account people’s opinions before making a decision. “Fairness, precedents, and public sentiment must be considered at the same time,” he added.
For the uninitiated, Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong has been in jail since January this year. He is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a 2017 bribery case involving then South Korea president Park Geun-hye who is also serving a jail term.
A presidential pardon for Lee could see citizens demand a similar pardon for Park as well. Moreover, Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak is also behind bars on a separate corruption charge. So this is a complicated matter. “We need to make a decision based on justice, fairness, and public consensus,” Moon said.
Meanwhile, Moon also knows that semiconductor chips are “core national strategic industry” for South Korea. He had called a meeting with some of the nation’s biggest firms including Samsung, SK Hynix, and Hyundai Motor last month to discuss the ongoing chip shortage. It now remains to be seen whether he grants Lee a presidential pardon amid this challenge that Samsung and the likes are facing.
Moon is reportedly scheduled to join a virtual meeting with US President Joe Mideo on May 21st. We might see him come to a decision before that.