Lee Jae-yong — the 278th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes — was released on parole in August 2021, after serving 18 months in jail, just over half of his original sentence.
The heir and de facto leader of Samsung group has received a presidential pardon, the latest example of South Korea's long tradition of freeing business leaders convicted of corruption on economic grounds.
Billionaire Lee Jae-yong, who was convicted of bribery and embezzlement in January last year, will be "reinstated" to give him a chance to "contribute to overcoming the economic crisis" of the country, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said on Friday.
Lee — the 278th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $7.9 billion — was released on parole in August 2021, after serving 18 months in jail, just over half of his original sentence.
Friday's pardon will allow him to fully return to work by lifting a post-prison employment restriction that had been set for five years.
"Due to the global economic crisis, the dynamism and vitality of the national economy have deteriorated, and the economic slump is feared to be prolonged," the Justice Ministry said in a statement.
The pardon was given so that Lee — as well as other high-level executives receiving pardons on Friday — could "lead the country's continuous growth engine through active investment in technology and job creation," the ministry added.
"I hope this special pardon will serve as an opportunity for all South Koreans to work together to overcome the economic crisis," President Yoon Suk-yeol said.
Lee, 54, was pardoned along with three other businessmen, including Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was sentenced to a suspended two-and-half-year prison term in a bribery case in 2018.
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Accusations of accounting fraud
The giant Samsung group is by far the largest of the family-controlled empires known as chaebols that dominate business in South Korea, the world's 12th-largest economy.
Lee is the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, the world's biggest smartphone maker. The conglomerate's overall turnover is equivalent to about one-fifth of South Korea's gross domestic product.
Lee still faces a separate trial over accusations of accounting fraud regarding a merger of two Samsung firms in 2015.
In May, he was excused from a hearing in that trial to host US President Joe Biden when he kicked off a tour of South Korea by visiting Samsung's chip plant, alongside President Yoon.
His pardon follows Samsung unveiling a massive $356 billion investment blueprint for the next five years, aimed at making it a frontrunner in a wide range of sectors — from semiconductors to biologics — and creating 80,000 new jobs.
The firm also employs about 20,000 people in the United States, and work is under way to build a new semiconductor plant in Texas, scheduled to open in 2024.