Samsung thrives as Seoul mulls pardon of corporate heir

South Korea Samsung Lee

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Pressure is mounting on South Korean President Moon Jae-in to pardon Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, who is back in prison after his conviction in a massive corruption scandal, even though business has rarely looked better at South Korea’s largest company.

Lee is just the latest South Korean corporate boss to run his business from behind bars, communicating decisions through visiting company executives. But his imprisonment is causing national handwringing over the future of the technology giant in the country sometimes called the “Samsung Republic.”

Many people — from business leaders and editorial writers to even Buddhist monks — have urged Moon to release Lee for the sake of an economy heavily dependent on Samsung’s technology exports. They worry Lee’s imprisonment could compromise Samsung’s speed and decisiveness, hindering its competitiveness in the fast-changing technology business.

Lee has been in prison for nearly four months and few expect him to serve his full prison sentence through July 2022. There's speculation Moon could free him on Buddha’s Birthday, which falls on Wednesday.

There’s also Liberation Day in August, which celebrates Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II. That also has often brought presidential pardons of high-profile politicians and businesspeople.

Moon's office said he will consider both the intensifying competition in the semiconductor market and public feelings about fairness before deciding whether to pardon Lee.

Lee runs Samsung as vice chairman. He's also the country's richest person. He is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for bribing then-President Park Geun-hye and her close confidante, who are serving lengthier prison terms, to win government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened his control over the corporate empire.

Samsung's latest results suggest it is doing just fine.

The company posted a near 50% jump in operating profit and its $58 billion revenue was the highest ever in the first three months of the year. Demand for its mainstay computer memory chips, TVs and other products has surged as the pandemic has forced millions to stay home. And Samsung's sleek Galaxy smartphones and tablets are the biggest competition for Apple’s iPhones and iPads.

Samsung has announced ambitious plans to expand its computer chip manufacturing. Last week it said it will invest 171 trillion won ($151 billion) through 2030 in higher-margin logic chips and its foundry business for contract chipmaking as it expands beyond its dominance in memory chips. The company expects demand for advanced chips to soar in coming years, lifted by emerging technologies such as fifth generation (5G) wireless networks, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.

Still, analysts say Samsung is increasingly falling behind Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in the race for high-tech chips. The world’s biggest contract chipmaker, TSMC controls 55% of the global foundry business versus Samsung’s 17% share, according to South Korea’s Trade Ministry.

Both could be threatened by U.S. efforts to reduce American dependence on Asian supply chains and rebuild the declining U.S. chip industry in response to chip shortages that have hobbled American auto manufacturing in recent months.

In a statement to The Associated Pre