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Samsung’s De Facto Leader, Imprisoned for Bribery, Will Be Paroled

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SEOUL — Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of the Samsung conglomerate, who was imprisoned for bribery, will be released on parole on Friday, the Ministry of Justice of South Korea said on Monday.

The ministry’s parole committee met on Monday and decided to free Mr. Lee and 800 other prisoners ahead of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day, which commemorates the end of Japanese colonial rule of Korea at the end of World War II. South Korea often paroles or pardons prisoners to mark major national holidays.

Mr. Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term for bribing the former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and ousted from office for corruption and abuse of power.

As vice chairman of Samsung, Mr. Lee has been running the conglomerate since a heart attack incapacitated his father, Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s chairman, in 2014. His father died in October, and Mr. Lee is his only son.

Samsung is the biggest and most lucrative of a handful of family-controlled conglomerates, or chaebol, that helped South Korea transform from a war-torn agrarian economy into a global export powerhouse. The group’s electronics unit, Samsung Electronics, alone accounts for nearly one-fifth of the country’s total exports.

But South Koreans have also grown weary of recurring corruption scandals among the chaebol. Mr. Lee’s father was twice convicted of bribery and other corruption charges, but never spent a day in jail, leading many to believe that Samsung was untouchable.

South Koreans have been divided over whether Mr. Lee was worth paroling.

Outside the Justice Ministry, where the parole committee met on Monday, activists opposed Mr. Lee’s parole, holding signs that said letting him walk without serving out his prison term would be another example of excessive leniency toward business tycoons convicted of corruption.

Ahead of Mr. Lee’s parole, the Justice Ministry had said it would make it easier for prisoners with good behavior to apply for parole. Until now, it was rare for the ministry to parole inmates who had served less than 70 percent of their terms. Mr. Lee has finished serving 60 percent of the term, and critics accused the ministry of amending its parole guidelines in his favor.

But a majority of South Koreans supported Mr. Lee’s early release from prison, according to recent surveys. Other business tycoons, pro-business lobbies and even some of the politicians campaigning for the presidential election next March have called for Mr. Lee’s release.

“We included Vice Chairman Lee in the list of people who would be paroled, taking into account the national and global economic condition amid the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic,” the justice minister, Park Beom-kye, said on Monday.

Samsung is run by an army of professional managers. But those who supported Mr. Lee’s parole argued that his imprisonment had created uncertainty when the South Korean tech giant needed to make bold investments and acquisitions amid a global chip shortage.

Local media has added to public anxiety by reporting that with Mr. Lee locked away, Samsung was postponing key strategic decisions, including the location of a $17 billion chip plant in the United States, while rival chip makers like TSMC and Intel were making large investments.

But it was unclear how actively Mr. Lee could be involved in Samsung management after he was paroled. He had been barred from returning to work for five years, and the Justice Ministry did not lift that ban.

Mr. Lee also faces other legal trouble. He is on trial on separate criminal charges of stock price manipulation and unfair trading. Mr. Lee has said he is innocent.

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