(Bloomberg) -- While technology billionaires have been among the most visible champions of the fight against Covid-19, perhaps none has as much at stake as Jay Y. Lee., Samsung’s anointed heir.
South Korea’s largest corporation and its de facto leader have been key players in one of Asia’s most successful coronavirus containment campaigns. Since March, Samsung has dispatched its own doctors to hard-hit zones, flown Korean engineers overseas via its private jet, doled out roughly $39 million worth of aid globally and played a central role in ramping up production of testing kits -- hailed by healthcare experts as a turning point in Korea’s battle against the disease.
Samsung -- the world’s largest maker of memory chips, mobile devices and electronic displays -- and its fellow conglomerates helped flatten the virus curve. But for Lee, success comes at a time of particular scrutiny. The well-publicized effort burnished his image months before the denouement of a years-long scandal and trial into alleged influence-peddling and Lee’s succession plans. In the legal clash, which inflamed resentment against Korea’s most influential conglomerates, Lee stands accused of using thoroughbred horses and other gifts to buy government support for plans to cement his family’s control over the Samsung empire -- something both Samsung and he have denied.
In a sign of how popular opinion will play into the case, Lee this week requested a public assessment of the validity of the indictment, invoking a measure allowing the formation of a civil panel to review cases. Then on Thursday, prosecutors, at risk of losing some authority, decided to seek an arrest warrant for the billionaire for alleged violations of capital market and audit laws, Yonhap News reported.
“Samsung got on the prosecutors’ nerves. The move to request an outside review is something that’s undercutting prosecutors and could enrage them,” said Chung Sun-sup, CEO at corporate research firm Chaebul.com. “Lee might have thought that he could get support from people who distrust prosecutors.”
Read more: Samsung Heir Vows an End to Family Rule After Succession Scandal
Lee could face a prison sentence of several years in the current trial. Regardless of Covid-19, the outcome could prove a watershed moment in the sensitive relationship between the country’s corporate chieftains and government. The hearings, which will likely wrap late this year, are regarded by many observers as a litmus test for whether Korea’s courts are truly independent of the powerful business interests that hold sway over the economy.
The 51-year-old Samsung heir convened a rare press conference in May to apologize for his company’s mis-steps over succession. Swearing his children would never run the company, he pledged to give back to society and praised his fellow citizens’ dedication throughout the outbreak. “It gave me a chance to look back on our past and as a member of the business community, I feel a greater sense of responsibility,” Lee said. “I pledge to create a new Samsung that is level with the national dignity of South Korea.”
The surprise announcement drew public support from both ruling and opposition parties as well as the chairperson of the Fair Trade Commission. But critics and academics pounced on Lee’s comments as bereft of substance. That’s because it came just before a deadline set by an internal Samsung oversight body for just such an apology. The independent compliance committee, established this year after a judge in the graft trial questioned Samsung’s measures to prevent legal violations such as bribery, assessed Lee’s apology as a “meaningful” step but wanted more details.
“Samsung has never done as much in the past” to assuage critics of the conglomerates, said Kyungmook Lee, a business professor at Seoul National University. “As the largest chaebol in South Korea, the way they contributed to the nation during the Covid-19 crisis and apologized over past wrongdoings is helping soften public sentiment and improve the image of both the company and its heir.”
That’s important because suspicion of the judiciary in Korea runs deep. Over the past decade, at least half a dozen high-profile industrial magnates have been sentenced to prison for corruption, only to have those jail terms mitigated or suspended by the courts -- including Lee’s father. Even President Moon Jae-in, who swept into power on promises to clean up endemic corporate malfeasance, grappled with public outrage after a judge in Lee’s first trial unexpectedly freed him after just a year in prison. In suspending Lee’s sentence, the judge concluded the billionaire couldn’t resist requests from a sitting president and that the greater responsibility lay with public officials. Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017, has denied taking any money for herself.
Paranoia about chaebols’ influence continues to dog the second phase of Lee’s hearings, which commenced late last year after the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision to suspend the mogul’s sentence and ordered a retrial. Lee’s hearing has been delayed for months as prosecutors argue that one of the appeals court judges overseeing the current case is biased and inclined to go lightly on Lee. The justice in question has shown a flair for the dramatic by, among other things, lecturing the executive at length in October on how he can better run Samsung, advising him to take inspiration from Israeli businesses. The appeals court judge has so far kept out of the fray.
“In South Korea, the public opinion often influences trials and sways verdicts,” said Heo Pil-seok, chief executive officer at Midas International Asset Management. “While Samsung’s facing several critical situations, it’s trying to make a plea for clemency to the public,” he said, referring to not just its Covid-19 efforts but also Lee’s apology.
Read more: Samsung Warns of Profit Slide After Virus Slams Tech Sphere
Samsung and Lee’s approach to the sudden flare-up of the novel coronavirus was in many ways no different than his peers’. Noted philanthropists Bill Gates and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Jack Ma donated millions or offered technical assistance. Others like Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos, faced with public criticism that their companies are placing workers in jeopardy, focused their efforts on protecting the workforce. And tech corporations joined manufacturers around the globe in trying to plug a shortfall in ventilators and masks.
Samsung representatives emphasized that the company’s main goal was to combat the disease, save lives and protect employees, and dismissed any suggestion they were connected to the hearing. In addition to dispatching personnel, the company also converted a training facility near Daegu into a treatment center, helped expedite business entries into China, even handed out free smartphones to quarantined patients.
“Samsung Electronics is joining the global fight against COVID-19 to safeguard the health and safety of our employees, customers, partners and local communities,” it said in a statement. “The smart factory program and other global relief initiatives by Samsung Electronics have nothing to do with the ongoing legal proceedings over the case of Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee. Our efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus have always been to help our employees and their families that have been impacted by this pandemic as we are all in this together.”
Samsung plays an unusually crucial role in Korea’s economy and national ethos. Its transformation from economic minnow to technology export powerhouse owes much to its family-run conglomerates. Known as chaebol -- which means “wealth clique” -- these pillars of the nation’s “miracle economy” encompass household names like LG, Hyundai and SK. They’ve supported government initiatives for decades, spearheading a modernization effort that’s created world leaders in shipping, steel, and now technology and electronics.
Largest of them all is Samsung. The 82-year-old conglomerate is both a symbol of the Asian country’s technological and diplomatic rise as well as a touchstone for what many think is wrong with the economy today -- the overwhelming dominance of a handful of dynasties who call the shots in everything from cars to phones.
“Samsung’s striving to overhaul its image to win a positive trial ruling,” said Chae Yibai, a former opposition lawmaker and a long-time corporate governance activist, referring to the months-long virus campaign. “The entire process is like a play, with a judge taking on the role of director and the compliance committee acting as a sub-director. The leading man is Lee.”
South Korea’s Chaebol, Engines of Growth and Scandal: QuickTake
In the current drama, Lee’s star is on the rise. His approval ratings in independent surveys have climbed since the conglomerate, heeding the government’s call, swung into action in March. The top keywords in domestic internet searches covering Lee from January to April were “virus” or “management,” according to surveyor Global Bigdata Research, pushing out trial-related terms among the top 30.
He’s even won over some of the smaller businesses that’ve traditionally played second fiddle to the chaebols. Local mask manufacturer E&W said its output increased about 50% after it adopted Samsung’s solutions in its facility setup and distribution. Samsung also dispatched about 10 experts to each of four test-kit makers to instruct their engineers on how to ramp up volumes while resolving bottlenecks through automation. “Keeping a sound ecosystem of SMEs is essential to Samsung as well as for the long-term benefits of all economic players,” said Junha Park, head of Samsung’s smart factory operation team.
Lee’s approval rating in surveys conducted by the Global Bigdata have risen in 2020 since the outbreak. They fell to 9.77% in the two days after his public apology, down from an average of 16.37% over the 30 days prior. But negative views also plummeted to 20.6% from 44.2%, while those on the fence shot up to 72.8% from 39.4%. That latter point is key.
“Credibility is very important,” said Daniel Yoo, head of global investment at Yuanta Securities Korea. “Clearly the corporate image, about Samsung and South Korea, has been improving.”
Chaebol Backlash Loses Bite as Jailed Execs Walk Free: QuickTake
The most immediate challenge for Samsung is empowering and keeping its de facto leader free during an era of heightened uncertainty. Regardless of the personal outcome of that trial, the longer-term perceptions of chaebols may hinge on Lee’s promise to corporatize Samsung. Some view his vision as the first step in finally reining in the chaebols, by breaking decades-old succession lines. Others suspect Samsung will find some other way to safeguard the Lee family’s control. That’s because it’s not up to Lee, but to the company’s shareholders and board, said Shin Se-don, an emeritus professor of economics at Sookmyung Women’s University.
“The apology was unlike Samsung,” said Shin, who worked at Samsung’s research institute in the late 1980s. “After Lee’s announcement, ruling and opposition parties both suggested Lee could be legally excused. That’s different from what most people think.”
(Updates with prosecutors seeking an arrest warrant in the third paragraph)
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