Samsung leader Lee Jae-yong walked out of prison Friday a year early, in a parole decision showing the conglomerate's outsize influence in South Korea. Lee left the prison near Seoul to a barrage of camera flashes and bowed in apology over the anger ignited by his case, related to the explosive corruption scandal that toppled South Korea's ex-president in 2017. Hundreds of demonstrators simultaneously shouted slogans denouncing or welcoming his release, per the AP. "[I] caused too much concern to our people. I am very sorry," said Lee before walking into a black sedan without answering reporters' questions. Lee, 53, served a total of 18 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzling millions of dollars from corporate funds to bribe then-President Park Geun-hye to ensure her government's support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened his control over the corporate empire.
His case was part of a massive corruption scandal that triggered nationwide protests and led to the impeachment and ouster of Park, who's been jailed since 2017 and won't be released until 2039 if she fully serves her term. Lee's parole marked an about-face for the government of President Moon Jae-in, who after being elected in 2017 pledged to curb the excesses of "chaebol," or South Korea's family-owned conglomerates, and end their cozy ties with the government. A Moon spokesperson said in a statement that Lee's release benefited "national interest" and pleaded for people's understanding. While Lee has always been in control of Samsung, even from prison, it's unclear how quickly he can formally resume his management role. He would need the justice minister to officially approve his return to work, as the law bans people convicted of major financial crimes from returning to work for five years after their release. He's widely expected to get that approval.
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