• Lee Jae-yong was charged with bribing a friend of former President Park Geun-hye
  • That scandal led to President Park’s impeachment in 2017 and her subsequent 25-year prison term
  • Lee Jae-yong is the only son of Samsung’s 78-year-old chairman, Lee Kun-hee

Lee Jae-yong, the heir to South Korea’s huge and powerful conglomerate Samsung Group, apologized for the bribery scandal he is involved in and promised he will not transfer control of the company to his children.

Lee Jae-yong, currently the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, made his first public comments in five years. Last August, the country’s Supreme Court overturned an appeals court ruling on his bribery case, which raised the likelihood of a tougher sentence and even a return to jail for Lee Jae-yong.

Lee Jae-yong was charged with bribing a friend of former President Park Geun-hye – through horses and financial contributions -- to gain government support for a deal guaranteeing succession of the conglomerate to his children.

That scandal led to Park’s impeachment in 2017 and her subsequent sentence to a 25-year prison term.

Lee Jae-yong served one year in detention but was released in 2018 by an appeals court. Lee Jae-yong returned to court for a retrial last year and now potentially faces more prison time.

The appeals court that released Lee Jae-yong is expected to rule on his final sentence within the next few months. Unless new evidence is presented during the retrial, the appeals court is expected to find that Lee Jae-yong used horses and cash to bribe President Park.

“We failed, at times, to meet society’s expectations. We even disappointed people and caused concern because we did not strictly uphold the law and ethical standards,” Lee Jae-yong said on Wednesday in Seoul. “I give my word here today that from now on, there will be no more controversy regarding succession. I do not plan to pass down my role to my children. This is something I have thought about for a long time but have been hesitant to express it openly. There will be no leaning on legal expediency or actions that cause ethical reproach. My sole focus will be on enhancing the corporate value of Samsung.”

Lee Jae-yong has given up his seat on Samsung’s board but kept his title as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics.

Lee Jae-yong also said: “We are recognized for our top-class technology and products, but the public view of Samsung is still critical. This is all because of our shortcomings. This has been my fault and I offer my sincere apology.”

Lee Jae-yong is the only son of Samsung’s 78-year-old chairman, Lee Kun-hee who was hospitalized for a heart attack in 2014 and remains bedridden. (Lee Kun-hee also faced a number of bribery and corruption charges during his career).

Samsung was founded by Lee Jae-yong’s grandfather Lee Byung-chul – but now it appears that company management will not be automatically passed to a fourth generation.

Lee Jae-yong also apologized for the actions of some Samsung executives who were caught sabotaging labor union activities. Lee Jae-yong then promised to uphold worker rights at the conglomerate.

Lee Jae-yong was likely referring to the behavior of Lee Sang-hoon, the former board chairman of Samsung Electronics who was imprisoned for 18 months in December for sabotaging union activities. Other executives have also been investigated for criminal conduct.

Lee Jae-yong now vowed the company will scrap its ‘no union’ rule.

"From now on, I will make sure that Samsung no longer pursues [a] no labor union [policy]," he said. "We will strictly comply with labor-related laws and will guarantee… fundamental labor rights."

In Lee Jae-yong’s own bribery case, the judge criticized Samsung for its lack of a strong compliance system that would prevent wrongdoing by executives. The company then formed a compliance committee.

But some governance experts remain skeptical.

“Both [the] apology and promise are vague. [Lee Jae-yong] did not specifically address what he has done wrong,” said Kim Woo-chan, a professor of finance at Korea University Business School.

Samsung Group is the largest family-run conglomerate in South Korea, with 59 affiliates engaged in technology, insurance, shipbuilding, hotels, theme parks and fashion. Its crown jewel, Samsung Electronics, is the world’s largest smartphone maker and memory chip vendor.