South Korean tycoons pay tribute to late Samsung chief

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 22, 2008 Lee Kun-Hee (L), chairman of South Korea’s largest group Samsung, arrives to hold a press conference as the vice-chairman Lee Hak-Soo (R) is seen at the group’s headquarters in Seoul. – Lee died on October 25 at the age of 78, the company said. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

SEOUL, South Korea (AFP) — South Korea’s billionaire business leaders lined up Monday to pay respects to the late Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee, for decades the country’s richest and most powerful industrialist.

Lee died aged 78 on Sunday, six years after suffering a heart attack that had left him bedridden.

Under his leadership, Samsung became the world’s largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, and the firm’s overall turnover today is equivalent to a fifth of South Korea’s GDP.

It is by far the largest of the chaebols, the sprawling family-controlled conglomerates that dominate business in the country.

Attendance at Lee’s mourning ritual — which runs until Wednesday — will be kept low because of the coronavirus pandemic, Samsung said.

But a series of top politicians and tycoons arrived at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul to pay tribute to Lee on Monday, including Hyundai Motor Group chief Chung Eui-sun and Korean Air chairman Cho Won-tae.

“It’s very sad that a great man has passed away,” Chung told reporters, praising Lee’s leadership “across entire fields of the country’s business community”.

The Hyundai group, founded by Chung’s grandfather, is South Korea’s second-biggest chaebol.

Ruling Democratic Party chairman and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon also praised the late Samsung chief for his “superb innovation that is unimaginable to an average man”.

“I want to thank him for elevating the country’s status and pride,” he said.

Other attendees included the US and Chinese ambassadors, whose countries are at loggerheads over trade and other issues.

The chaebols drove South Korea’s transformation from war-ravaged ruin to the world’s 12th-largest economy, but have long been accused of murky political ties and stifling competition.

Lee Kun-hee himself was twice convicted of criminal offences, in one case for bribing a president, though he was later pardoned.

His son and heir Lee Jae-yong is currently being retried on corruption and other offences linked to the scandal that brought down former president Park Geun-hye.

He also faces a separate fraud case over company deals said to be linked to his succession.

© Agence France-Presse