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Samsung’s Jay Y. Lee Fires Up His Company Despite Legal Hassles

Samsung heir and acting chief Jay Y. Lee celebrated his 52nd birthday Tuesday, June 23, at a critical juncture in the fortunes of the empire founded by his grandfather and expanded many times over by his father.

Lee has been embroiled in a years-long scandal and graft trial while at the helm of Korea’s biggest chaebol or conglomerate. This week, he was seen visiting key units of Samsung Electronics inspiring subordinates to compete effectively in a tough business environment both at home and abroad.

Most recently, Lee, executive vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and heir presumptive to the Samsung empire, chatted with bosses and researchers in the company’s home appliances unit about ways to build up business while the local economy sags amid fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 and increasing competition from China.

Lee visited the facility in the city of Suwon, 34 kilometers south of Seoul, several days after touring an R&D center developing new and better chips. Wherever he goes, his focus has been on the future of the business rather than the charges that prosecutors are pursuing against him.

“We do not have much time,” he warned after touring the center in Hwaseong, another nine kilometers beyond Suwon. The message was clear: in the race to maintain supremacy as the world’s biggest semiconductor manufacturer, Samsung Electronics has to keep innovating against severe competition, mostly U.S.

Lee, however, cannot avoid the pressing reality of the government’s drive to undermine his personal stake and leadership of Samsung.

The immediate future of Lee and Samsung now rests in the hands of a panel of experts formed by the prosecutor’s office to advise on going ahead with the case in which Lee is charged with manipulating share values in order to solidify his grip on the group. Lee is the only son of Chairman Lee Kun-Hee, who has been hospitalized, unable to communicate, since suffering a severe heart attack six years ago.

The case against Samsung reflects the reformist drive of the government of the liberal President Moon Jae-In, elected more than three years after “the Candlelight Revolution” that resulted in the impeachment, ouster and jailing of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-Hye.

The panel may not have the authority to prosecute the case against Lee, but its recommendation will be vital. Depending on the panel’s advice, prosecutors must consider whether to go on pressing the case. They will also have to decide whether or not to try again to persuade the court to send Lee to jail for what may be another lengthy trial.

The court rejected the prosecutor’s initial request to jail Lee, who has already spent a year behind bars while on trial in a separate case in which he was found guilty but given a suspended sentence and freed from jail. The charge against him in that trial was for bribing a key adviser to the ousted president, Park Geun-Hye, in order to be sure of her support for the controversial merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries, in which Lee holds a controlling stake of 23%.

Now, in the second installment in the ongoing legal dispute, prosecutors are seeking to show that Samsung C&T shares were deliberately undervalued to facilitate the merger with Cheil, solidifying Lee’s control over Cheil and the rest of the empire.

Lee throughout the ordeal has maintained a measure of sangfroid, stressing quality and innovation, not legal hassles. The survival of Samsung, the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, he said before leaving the R&D Center, “depends on how fast we can secure future technologies.”

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