US companies push for pardon for jailed Samsung chip mogul

Perhaps it’s no surprise that big business is putting all its weight in Washington, DC.

But… Seoul, South Korea?

The US Chamber of Commerce has joined with Korean business groups in calling on the country’s president to pardon the de facto head of Samsung. The conglomerate, which is the world’s second-largest semiconductor seller, is considering a multibillion-dollar investment in the United States.

At issue: Samsung’s most powerful executive and founder’s grandson Jay Y. Lee, also known as Lee Jae-yong, is serving a 2.5-year sentence for bribing a friend of the president’s era in order to curry favor with the government.

Precedent suggests he could walk. Years ago, the president of Hyundai was convicted of fraud and then quickly pardoned, as were the executives of corporate giants Daewoo and the SK Group. Lee’s own father, who was the chairman of Samsung, was twice found guilty of bribery and pardoned.

South Korean family conglomerates are known as chaebols.

“The leaders of the Korean chaebol have long been arrested, jailed, convicted, imprisoned and then released,” said veteran Asia-based journalist Donald Kirk, author of “Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung”.

In previous cases, chaebol cadres were released on the grounds that they were crucial to the country’s economy. Kirk said it was “logical” to think Lee could receive the same treatment.

“Some people are wondering about the size of Jay Y. Lee’s jail cell,” Kirk said. “You know, maybe he has a prison suite. Or maybe he doesn’t. But you can’t really run an empire, like Samsung, from a prison cell.

This empire was built by Lee’s grandfather from 1938. In South Korea, the chaebol conglomerates have long benefited from generous government subsidies.

“The idea was to build these national companies, moving up the value chain, starting with the simple manufacture of combs and dry goods, to entry-level electronics in cars, and now at most. high level of high tech in the world, ”said Frank Ahrens, former Korean-based journalist and author of“ Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan ”.

Ahrens, now a director at BGR Public Relations, said Korea’s dominant chaebols have a complicated picture.

“A lot of Koreans have a love-hate relationship with the chaebols,” Ahrens said, “maybe in the same way Americans have a love-hate relationship with Amazon Prime. We say, ‘Oh my God, this is so big. And the workers, what are they paid? And, ‘Oh hey, here’s the thing I ordered yesterday, and it arrived at my door today. Isn’t that awesome? “

Korean business groups lobbied for Lee’s forgiveness. Samsung did not respond to a Marketplace interview request.

But the US Chamber of Commerce in Seoul – also known as AmCham – sent a letter to the Korean president, asking for Lee’s release to secure US-Korean economic ties.

AmCham members include powerful multinationals such as General Electric, Citi, Disney and Pfizer.

“It’s disappointing,” AmCham CEO James Kim said during a webinar in January, speaking about Lee’s jail term. “Obviously, Samsung is such an important company. But we also understand that there is a rule of law in Korea.

So, are American companies putting all their weight on Korean companies?

“I can understand that people might think it’s a little embarrassing,” said Tami Overby, former chairman and CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. “However, I think Americans don’t understand the context.”

Overby, now a senior director of consultancy firm McLarty Associates, said that in Korea, when the president asks for a favor or a donation from a business executive, it’s not really a request. Deliver, otherwise.

If Lee remains behind bars, Overby is concerned about blocking a planned Samsung chip factory in the United States amid a global semiconductor shortage.

“There is still $ 17 billion on the table which will hopefully eventually go to the United States,” Overby said. “But the only one who can pull the trigger on this investment is President Lee.”

Not everyone agrees that Lee is a boardroom version of an essential worker.

“He is not [a] proven business leader in Korea, ”said Sangin Park, an economist at Seoul National University and outspoken critic of the chaebol system. “He can’t be compared to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others.”

Lee’s case shows the power of big business money, Park said, including that of AmCham.

“I suspect the leadership of AmCham is tied to the interests of the Korean chaebol,” Park said.

Amcham declined an interview but said in a statement that “our intention is not to lobby.”

Yet his support for the Samsung mogul and his potential forgiveness raises a familiar question: Are Korean giants, as they say, too big to be jailed?

About Christopher Easley

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