Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who transformed the South Korean company into a global tech titan, died at the age of 78 on Sunday, the company said.
Under Lee’s leadership, Samsung became the world’s largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, and the company’s total turnover today equals one-fifth of South Korea’s GDP.
Samsung’s meteoric rise helped make Lee the richest and most powerful industrialist in South Korea.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Kun-hee Lee, president of Samsung Electronics,” the company said in a statement.
“President Lee passed away on October 25 with his family, including Vice President Jay Y. Lee, by his side.
“President Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world leader in innovation and industrial powerhouse of a local company,” said the firm, adding: “His legacy will be eternal.”
Samsung is by far the largest of the family-controlled conglomerates, or chaebols, that dominate business in South Korea.
They fueled the nation’s transformation from war-torn ruin to the world’s twelfth-largest economy, but today they are accused of shady political ties and stifling competition, with Lee himself twice convicted of criminal offenses, in a case for bribery of a president.
– Global power –
When Lee inherited the presidency of the Samsung group in 1987, founded by his father as an exporter of fish and fruit, it was already the largest conglomerate in the country, with operations ranging from consumer electronics to construction.
But it was seen as a poor-quality producer of cheap, low-quality products.
“Let’s change everything except our wives and children,” Lee said in 1993.
The company collected and burned the 150,000 cell phones it had in stock, paving the way for the rebirth of the successful “Anycall” phone.
With Lee at the helm, Samsung became a global giant: When it suffered a heart attack in 2014, it was the world’s largest maker of smartphones and memory chips, and a major player in semiconductors and LCDs.
Lee rarely spoke to the media, but was closely watched every time he broke his long silences, often with doom-laden corporate New Years speeches.
His son, Samsung Electronics Vice President Lee Jae-yong, has been at the helm of the company since the heart attack in 2014.
– “Hermit King” –
Despite his immense wealth and power, Lee rarely ventured outside the high walls of his private compound in central Seoul to visit the company’s headquarters, earning him the nickname “Hermit King.”
Lee, the third son of Samsung group founder Lee Byung-chull, had a soft spot for dogs; It developed as a child in Japan, where he went to school from the age of 11. He was also known for his love of movies, horse riding, and exotic supercars. .
He studied at the prestigious Waseda University in Japan and obtained an MBA from George Washington University in the United States.
He became vice president of the group’s construction and commerce division at the age of 36, and became president of the group nine years later, shortly after his father’s death.
Lee married Hong Ra-hee, whose father was a minister of justice, with whom he had a son and three daughters.
– Bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion –
The worlds of politics and business have become intertwined in South Korea, and the connection was reflected in Lee’s career.
In 1996, he was convicted of bribing former President Roh Tae-woo to obtain favors for Samsung in corporate policy decisions.
Lee was also found guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion in an illicit funds scandal in 2008, which saw him briefly resign from the company’s leadership.
But the suspended sentences meant he never served time in jail and received two presidential pardons, which went on to spearhead his country’s successful efforts to secure the 2018 Winter Olympics.
A few years later, he fought a lawsuit from his older brother and sister claiming they were entitled to billions of dollars worth of Samsung shares.
He had been in medical care after his heart attack, but few details about his condition were revealed, leaving him shrouded in mystery even in his final days.