SEOUL — President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday pardoned Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of the Samsung conglomerate, who served prison time after being convicted of bribing one of Mr. Yoon’s predecessors.
Mr. Lee was released on parole last August. The pardon gives him a free hand to run Samsung, because it ends what had been a five-year ban on his return to management. But many South Korean business analysts believe that Mr. Lee had continued to control his empire through loyal subordinates, though Samsung has never explicitly confirmed that.
Mr. Lee was one of nearly 1,700 people pardoned by Mr. Yoon on Friday; most had been convicted of white-collar crimes and traffic violations. South Korean presidents often issue mass pardons to mark major holidays, like National Liberation Day, which falls on Monday, when the pardons will take effect.
“I hope that this special pardon will become an occasion for the people to pull their strength together to help overcome the economic crisis,” Mr. Yoon said during a cabinet meeting on Friday. He said many small-business owners had been among those pardoned.
Samsung is the most successful of the handful of family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebol, that helped make South Korea a global export powerhouse and still dominate the economy. Its Samsung Electronics unit alone accounts for nearly one-sixth of the country’s total exports.
Mr. Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was convicted of bribing Park Geun-hye, the president at the time, to obtain government support for a merger of two Samsung subsidiaries. Ms. Park was impeached in 2016 over that bribe and other corruption accusations, and eventually went to prison herself, before being pardoned and released in December.
Mr. Lee was in the midst of a two-and-a-half-year prison term when he was paroled last year. Another tycoon, the Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, received a suspended prison sentence on charges related to Ms. Park, and was also pardoned on Friday by Mr. Yoon, who promised a business-friendly government as a presidential candidate this year.
Mr. Yoon, a former prosecutor, was a leading member of the investigative team whose work led to the conviction of Mr. Lee and Mr. Shin.
In South Korea, there is a long history of chaebol leaders who were convicted of graft-related crimes and later received presidential pardons, usually on the grounds that the country needed the leaders. Anticorruption activists have long argued that such pardons help to entrench corruption in South Korean politics.
An opposition lawmaker, Park Yong-jin, said on Friday that Mr. Yoon had confirmed the widely held belief that “you are free if you are rich, but guilty if poor.”
But business groups have tirelessly lobbied for such pardons, arguing that the economy benefits when chaebol leaders are free to run their empires. Recent public surveys found that a majority of South Koreans supported a pardon for Mr. Lee. In recent days, Mr. Yoon’s approval ratings have dipped below 30 percent, an unusually poor performance for a South Korean leader so early in office.
Though Mr. Lee’s title is vice chairman, he began running South Korea’s biggest and most lucrative conglomerate in 2014 when his father, Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s chairman, was incapacitated by a heart attack. The elder Mr. Lee died in 2020.
“I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity to make a fresh start,” Mr. Lee said on Friday in a statement released through Samsung. “I will respond to the people’s expectations and the government’s thoughtful consideration by contributing to the economy through continuous investment and job creation for young people.”
South Korea has faced mounting uncertainty over its economy and national security, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, the growing tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan and North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons threat.
South Korean news outlets said the pardon could encourage Mr. Lee to succeed his late father as chairman of Samsung and to deal more actively with challenges facing the company, at a time when the global chip industry is scrambling to address supply shortages caused in part by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Samsung, a global leader in the chip industry, must also deal with American pressure on South Korea to join a United States-led semiconductor supply chain alliance and with growing competition from China, which is investing aggressively in its own semiconductor industry.
Mr. Lee’s legal troubles are not over. He is on trial on separate criminal charges of stock price manipulation and unfair trading. Mr. Lee has said he is innocent.