Lee Kun-hee, man behind Samsung’s rise to tech titan, dies at 78

Twice pardoned for crimes including bribing a president, Lee transformed Samsung into a global electronics giant.

In this file photo taken on July 11, 2008, Lee Kun-Hee, former Samsung Group chairman, leaves after his trial as reporters ask him questions at a Seoul court [File: Jeon Hyeong-jin/AFP]

Lee Kun-hee, the ailing Samsung Electronics chairman who transformed the small television maker into a global giant of consumer electronics, has died.

In a statement, Samsung said Lee, who was 78, died on Sunday with his family members, including his son and de facto company chief Lee Jae-yong, by his side.

Lee Kun-Hee had been hospitalised since May 2014 after suffering a heart attack and the younger Lee has run Samsung, the biggest company in South Korea.

“All of us at Samsung will cherish his memory and are grateful for the journey we shared with him,” the Samsung statement said.

“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” it said, adding: “His legacy will be everlasting.”

During Lee’s lifetime, Samsung Electronics developed from a second-tier TV maker to the world’s biggest technology firm by revenue – seeing off Japanese brands Sony, Sharp Corp and Panasonic Corp in chips, TVs and displays; ending Nokia Oyj’s handset supremacy and beating Apple Inc in smartphones.

Along the way, Lee was convicted and twice pardoned for crimes, including bribing a president.

Samsung helped make South Korea’s economy, Asia’s fourth-largest.

Its businesses encompass shipbuilding, life insurance, construction, hotels, amusement park operation and more. Samsung Electronics alone accounts for 20 percent of the market capital on South Korea’s main stock market.

Lee leaves behind immense wealth, with Forbes estimating his fortune at $16bn as of January 2017.

South Koreans are both proud of Samsung’s global success and concerned the company and Lee family are above the law and influence over almost every corner of society.

In 1996, Lee was handed a suspended sentence of two years in prison for corporate contributions to former President Roh Tae-woo. He was later pardoned and more than a decade later, in 2008, he was convicted for illegal share dealings, tax evasion and bribery designed to pass his wealth and corporate control to his three children.

He received a presidential pardon in 2009 and returned to Samsung’s management in 2010.

Samsung was also ensnared in the 2016-17 corruption scandal that led to then-President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and imprisonment.

Its executives, including the younger Lee, were investigated by prosecutors who believed Samsung executives bribed Park to secure the government’s backing for a smooth leadership transition from father to son.

Source: News Agencies