South Korean Lobby Groups Call for Presidential Pardon of Samsung Chief Before Biden's Visit

South Korean Lobby Groups Call for Presidential Pardon of Samsung Chief Before Biden's Visit
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jay Y. Lee speaks as he is released on parole from Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, South Korea on Aug. 13, 2021. (Yonhap via Reuters)
Jessica Mao

U.S. President Joe Biden will visit South Korea and Japan from May 20 to May 24, which will be his first trip to Asia as president.

When the visit was still in the planning stage, five South Korean lobby groups called for a presidential pardon to be issued to Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong.

They believe that South Korea is in a difficult economic situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with U.S.–China tensions and the Russia–Ukraine conflict. South Korea now needs capable entrepreneurs to help overcome the country's economic crisis and ensure the country's future competitiveness, so it is necessary to grant an amnesty to those influential entrepreneurs who are currently in jail, the groups said.

Lee is the de facto leader of Samsung. The lobbies argue that despite Lee's parole last year, Lee's absence is a major reason behind Samsung's slow moves in large-scale investments as well as mergers and acquisitions.

The five business groups—the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Korea International Trade Association, the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises, the Korea Enterprises Federation (KEF), and the Federation of Middle Market Enterprises of Korea, submitted a petition to Cheong Wa Dae and the Ministry of Justice calling for Lee's amnesty on April 25.

Lee was released on parole in August 2021. While he will complete his sentence soon in July 2022, he will still be subject to a five-year employment restriction.

In addition to Lee, these lobby groups have also called for the pardon of Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of South Korea's Lotte Group, who was sentenced to probation for allegedly offering 7 billion won ($5.52 million) in bribes to Park Geun-hye.

Affected by South Korean law, the normal business activities of both Lee and Shin are restricted.

Biden to Visit South Korea in May

It is reported that Biden’s Asia trip will include meeting with Japanese leaders on May 24 for the U.S.–India–Australia–Japan quartet talks (QUAD), after visiting South Korea for a summit with the newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol.

Analysts believe that during Biden’s three-day visit to South Korea, in addition to the South Korea-U.S. summit meeting, he will go to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between South Korea and North Korea, and the Humphreys base of the U.S. military stationed in South Korea in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do.

A source told the Korea Times recently that he believed the U.S. visit to South Korea was aimed at re-strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
A person related to the Foreign Affairs and Security Branch of the South Korean Presidential Transfer Committee also told the Chosun Ilbo that the U.S. government has recently been paying close attention to the strengthened alliance between North Korea, China, and Russia. In response, the United States is working to solidify cooperation with its allies in the Indo-Pacific.
The Chosun Ilbo reported that some analysts believe that Biden's visit to South Korea is also to strengthen "economic security cooperation” and restore the U.S.–South Korea–Japan tripartite cooperation that was severely damaged during the five years of the Moon Jae-in administration. Therefore, in addition to the demilitarized zone on the border between the two Koreas and the U.S. military base in South Korea, Biden's visit will also include Samsung semiconductor production bases.

Lee's Pardon Could boost South Korea-US Economic Cooperation

In an interview with The Epoch Times on April 27, Lu Tianming, a current affairs observer living in the United States, said that the South Korean lobby groups chose to submit their petition to pardon Lee Jae-yong and others before Biden’s visit because Lee has close ties with the United States, and can play a great role in promoting relations between South Korea and the United States.

Lu said that the previous South Korean government was trying to please both China and the United States, but President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol had a clear pro-American stance, and anti-communist sentiment among South Koreans was also strong. South Korea, especially the South Korean economic circle, hoped to establish more cooperation with the United States in the post-pandemic industrial chain restructuring.

However, the current status of Lee Jae-yong and other entrepreneurs who have been released from prison on parole has many legal restrictions on the positions and roles they can play. Therefore, the South Korean economic circle certainly hope that these people can be pardoned so that they can play a greater role in advancing South Korea-U.S. economic cooperation.

Lee Promoted Samsung's U.S. Factory

On Nov. 23, 2021, Samsung Electronics announced that it has selected Tyler, Texas, as a new semiconductor wafer foundry production base, about one week after Lee’s special business trip to North America.

That was Lee’s first trip abroad since his parole in August. It is also his first visit to the United States in more than five years.

In May 2021, when Moon Jae-in and Biden held a summit meeting, Samsung had said that it would build a second foundry production line in the United States, but the details and project schedule were shelved.

Liao Shiming, a Hong Kong finance and economics columnist, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 16, 2021, that Lee’s U.S. trip was obviously to implement his original intentions.

Liao believes that the United States wants to decouple from China in numerous high-tech areas, including information technology, biotechnology, new material technology, space, biochemistry, and other fields. In doing so, the United States plans to restructure its supply chains—its global supply chains will be divided into two subgroups, high-tech products and ordinary products.

At the beginning of 2021, when the United States rolled out its new policies regarding the supply chains, South Korea noticed with shock that it was excluded from all U.S. high-tech supply chains. This means if the United States has developed any state-of-the-art technology, South Korea will be restricted from getting the technology transfer or the equipment output, Liao said.

“This makes South Korea very nervous. Then why did the United States exclude South Korea from its high-tech supply chain? Of course it is because South Korea is too close to China,” Liao explained.

When Lee was released from prison and went to the United States for his high-profile business trip, Liao believes that it is an indication the Korean government wishes to restore their relationship with the United States, because the very person in the Korean industry who has the best relationship with the Americans is Lee Jae-yong.