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Samsung chief to be granted parole as chip competition intensifies

Lee Jae-yong to be freed on Friday after serving over half of 30-month jail term

Jailed Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong is to be released on parole on Friday. Lee is pictured arriving at court on Jan. 18.   © AFP/Jiji

SEOUL -- Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who has served 60% of his 30-month jail term for corruption, will be granted parole on Friday, South Korea's justice ministry announced on Monday.

The ministry said that Lee was included in the list of 810 prisoners to be released on the occasion of Liberation Day which falls on Sunday. The nine-member Parole Review Committee, chaired by Vice Justice Minister Kang Sung-kook, hosted a four-hour meeting in the afternoon to discuss the matter.

"In particular Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was included in the list as we considered the national economy and global economic circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic," the ministry said in a statement. "We also considered various factors including public sentiment and his attitude in prison."

Lee has served a total of 18 months as he was given a two-and-half year jail term for bribery and embezzlement. The Seoul High Court ruled that Lee embezzled 8.7 billion won ($7.6 million) of corporate funds to bribe former President Park Geun-hye in 2015 to smooth his corporate succession process. That trial was part of a corruption scandal which ousted Park in 2017.

The parole comes as Samsung faces tough competition with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Intel and other rivals in the global chip industry. The South Korean tech giant hopes to be the top maker of logic chips by 2030, adding to its current position atop the memory chip market. It plans to spend 171 trillion won to accelerate research in cutting-edge semiconductor process technologies, and the construction of a new chip plant.

Many South Korean newspapers have also asked President Moon Jae-in to release Lee from jail so that Samsung can make bigger investments and step up acquisitions. Some even hope Lee can help the country secure more coronavirus vaccines by tapping his network of international contacts.

Public opinion was also favorable toward Lee. Two-thirds of respondents supported his parole in a poll conducted by YTN cable news channel last month.

But some politicians and civic groups have been speaking out against leniency or clemency for the Samsung leader.

Park Yong-jin, a member of the National Assembly in Moon's own governing Democratic Party and a contender in the presidential election next year, expressed opposition on Monday, saying a parole would be an affront to the rule of law and show that the wealthy and powerful always get a way out.

"Only 0.3% of prisoners were given parole before they completed 80% of their jail term for the last 10 years," said Park in a press conference before the justice ministry's decision was announced.

A total of 1,056 civic groups opposed parole last month, saying that Lee does not deserve it. "Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong is a criminal involved in bribery and embezzlement. To give him parole is nothing but trading money with ethics and morals," said the groups in a joint statement.

Jang Hye-young, who sits in the National Assembly -- South Korea's parliament -- with the progressive Justice Party, said last month that a parole for Lee would be a denial of equality.

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