Disgraced Samsung heir likely won't give company control to his children

Rachel England
Contributing Writer
samsung leadership

In his first public statement since 2015, disgraced Samsung heir and vice chairman Jay. Y Lee has vowed that he will not hand over control of the company to his children. Reuters reports that in a televised press conference held at the company’s Seoul offices, Lee said, “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 said he wanted to put an end to the “controversy regarding succession.” The Korea Herald, meanwhile, reports that Lee said, “I will not pass the company’s managerial rights to my children.” The difference may be down to translation discrepancies.

The comments follow years of controversy and disrepute for the Samsung boss, who had been running the chaebol after his father suffered a heart attack in 2014. The start of 2017 saw Lee arrested for bribery and other misdeeds, following accusations that he’d been involved in payments made to Choi Soon-sil, an ally of the country's impeached president, in a supposed bid to clinch approval for a merger. Following his indictment shortly afterwards, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison — a much shorter sentence than the 12 years he had been facing, but still long enough to be considered a heavy penalty for a country that usually goes lightly on major business figures. Less than a year later, however, he walked free, after the appellate court halved a lower court’s five-year jail sentence and suspended it for three years.

Fast forward to August 2019, however, and that ruling was overturned. As such, there is still the possibility of Lee returning to prison and facing an even tougher sentence. And that’s why some critics believe he has now made his statement about succession — by doing so it will induce the court to finally confirm the suspension of his sentence. That could backfire, of course, with the courts swinging the other way. Critics have also condemned the vagueness of his apology, as during the conference he said, “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.”

It’s not clear what happens next. Lee did not specify where managerial control will eventually go, and the legal process is still unfolding around Lee’s case and (potential) future punishment. Whether Lee’s promise will restore confidence in Samsung’s shareholders, partners and customers remains to be seen, but if it is the case that succession bypasses his children, it will mark the end of the lineage of one of South Korea’s most established and recognized chaebols, leaving the future of the company open to new players and all the uncertainties that come with that.