Lee Kun-Hee, Who Made South Korea’s Samsung a Global Powerhouse, Dies at 78

Lee Kun-hee, who built Samsung Electronics into a global powerhouse in smartphones, semiconductors and televisions, died on Sunday after spending more than six years in hospital following a heart attack, the company said.

Lee, who was 78, grew the Samsung Group into South Korea’s biggest conglomerate and became the country’s richest person. But he was also convicted of bribery and tax evasion, and he and the empire he built were vilified for wielding huge economic clout, and for opaque governance and dubious transfers of the family wealth.

“Lee is such a symbolic figure in South Korea’s spectacular rise and how South Korea embraced globalisation, that his death will be remembered by so many Koreans,” said Chung Sun-sup, chief executive of corporate researcher firm Chaebul.com.

Samsung Group affiliates’ 326.7 trillion won ($289.6 billion) in 2019 revenue was worth about 17% of South Korea’s gross domestic product, according to Fair Trade Commission data and a Reuters calculation.

Lee died with his family by his side, the conglomerate said.

At around 5 p.m. (0800 GMT), Lee’s son Jay Y. Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, wearing a face mask, walked into the Samsung Medical Center where a memorial was being held. The area for the memorial was limited to 50 people, a sign said.

The funeral will be a small family affair, Samsung said. It did not say when or where the funeral would be.

Lee’s aggressive bets on new businesses, especially semiconductors, helped grow the conglomerate his father Lee Byung-chull built from a noodle trading business into a global powerhouse with assets worth $375 billion, including dozens of affiliates stretching from electronics and insurance to shipbuilding and construction.

“His legacy will be everlasting,” Samsung said in a statement.

The presidential office said South Korean President Moon Jae-in had plans to send condolence flowers to the funeral, and send chief of staff Noh Young-min and senior presidential secretary Lee Ho-seung to pay respects on his behalf.

“The leadership he showed will be a great example and courage for our companies as they overcome the crisis and challenges ahead amid difficult times we’re under due to the coronavirus,” President Moon was quoted as saying to the Lee family, according to the presidential office.

Lee is the latest second-generation leader of a South Korean family-controlled conglomerate, or chaebol, to die, leaving potentially thorny succession issues for the third generation.

Ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon praised Lee’s leadership, but said, “It can’t be denied that he reinforced the chaebol-led economic structure and failed to recognise labour unions.”

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