Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong makes public apology

Samsung heir promises end to Lee dynasty control

Image credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

Samsung Group heir Lee Jae-yong has apologised for union-busting tactics and promised to put an end to the hereditary transfer of management. However, he avoided admitting to, or apologising for, the criminal activities which have landed him in jail.

Lee, vice chairman of Samsung, is the only son of Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee. He has been widely considered the company’s de facto head since his father suffered a heart attack in May 2014.

In January 2017, Lee was accused by prosecutors of bribery, embezzlement and perjury in association with an explosive political scandal. He was arrested and charged with bribing Choi Soon-sil - a friend of then-President Park Geun-hye - to win government support for a deal central to planning family succession at Samsung. Choi, Park and other figures involved are now serving decades-long prison sentences.

In August 2017, Lee was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but a swift appeal resulted in his sentence being suspended for three years and reduced, allowing him to walk free after just one year in custody. In August 2019, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court ruling, raising the spectre of a much tougher custodial sentence.

This week, Lee made a rare public statement to offer a partial apology. He was advised to make the statement by Samsung’s oversight panel, created after Supreme Court Judge Kim Ji-hyung criticised Samsung for lack of a compliance system to hold executives to account.

“We failed, at times, to meet society’s expectations. We even disappointed people and caused concern because we did not strictly uphold the law and ethical standards,” he said, speaking during a press conference at Samsung’s Seoul office. He apologised for negatively affecting public perceptions of Samsung while also boasting of the quality of Samsung products.

Addressing the issue of hereditary transfers of control, he promised not to hand management of Samsung Group over to his children: “I give my word here today that from now on, there will be no more controversy regarding succession. I do not plan to pass down my role to my children. This is something I have thought about for a long time but have been hesitant to express it openly.”

He also apologised for union-busting behaviour by Samsung executives and said that there would be no further talk about a “union-less Samsung” in the future. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions questioned the sincerity of Lee’s apology and called on Samsung to reinstate and compensate former employees who were fired for unionisation efforts.

Lee bowed in apology and left the press conference without taking questions.

Despite the significance of Lee’s partial apology – his first public statement since he apologised for Samsung’s handling of the transmission of MERS at a Samsung Medical Centre in 2015 – Lee is unlikely to have dissipated anger towards Samsung’s leadership. While expressing some remorse, he did not admit to criminal wrongdoing.

Professor Kim Woo-chan, a corporate governance expert at Korea University Business School, commented: “Both apology and promise are vague. [Lee] did not specifically address what he has done wrong.”

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