Lee Kun-hee on Wednesday resumed the chairmanship of Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest technology company by sales, after less than two years on the sidelines because of a corruption scandal.
Many analysts had said his return was a question of time after the 68-year-old received a presidential pardon at the end of last year, ostensibly to help him lead South Korea’s bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Nicknamed the Emperor, Mr Lee is widely seen as the man behind Samsung’s rise and is South Korea’s most recognisable businessman.
Business groups welcomed the move and Samsung’s shares, which are about 50 per cent foreign owned, rose 1.2 per cent to Won819,000 ($718,000) in a flat market.
However, civil rights groups and some politicians have long seen Mr Lee’s case as an indictment of standards of corporate governance in South Korea.
“Samsung’s corporate governance problems, which have led to Mr Lee’s return to management, could increase the possibility of causing a crisis like Toyota’s rather than preventing it,” Solidarity for Economic Reform, a shareholders’ activist group, said.
Mr Lee resigned as chairman of South Korea’s largest industrial group in April 2008.
Although he was cleared of bribery allegations, he was given a three-year suspended jail sentence for his role in selling bonds of a Samsung unit to his children at below-market prices.
Many South Korean executives convicted of serious white collar crime have continued running their companies.
While some officials defend this leniency as a tribute to the role of big business in South Korea’s astronomic rise from poverty, others see it as a symptom of an ingrained old boys’ network.
Samsung said the decision was made at a meeting of the group’s presidents, who cited “the rapidly changing business environment” as a reason for his return.
“We are in a real crisis where top global companies are collapsing. We don’t know what is going to happen to Samsung,” said Mr Lee, who has been striking an apocalyptic tone in his comments on the company, highlighting a need for strong leadership.
“Within the next 10 years, the businesses and products that represent Samsung will disappear. We have to start anew. We have no time to hesitate.”
James Chung, the company’s spokesman, said the group’s presidents agreed that Mr Lee’s leadership and experience were badly needed amid increasing uncertainties in the global economy.