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Samsung Chairman Lee Jae-yong acquitted in stock, accounting fraud case

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A South Korean court has acquitted Samsung Executive Chairman of stock price manipulation and accounting fraud charges.

About the ruling: On Feb. 5, Seoul Central District Court absolved the 55-year-old executive and 13 other current and former Samsung officials of charges linked to a 2015 merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries. The acquittal signals a major legal victory for Samsung, currently facing a sales slump and increased competition.

About the defendant: Lee, also known as Jay Y. Lee, was previously found guilty of bribery and corruption charges in 2017. After serving only a total of 18 months of his initial five-year prison sentence, Lee was released on parole in 2021 and later pardoned by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in August 2022.

About the accusations: The prosecution team alleged that the primary purpose of the merger was to bolster Lee's control over Samsung Electronics, the conglomerate's flagship company. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term and a fine of 500 million won ($376,418) for Lee, asserting that he and other executives artificially inflated the stock price of textile company Cheil Industries and devalued construction and engineering firm Samsung C&T before the merger. The court cited insufficient evidence to support such claims.

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Critics’ reactions: Pundits, activists and progressive politicians have questioned the court's decision, particularly in light of Lee's previous conviction in the bribery case. Some argue that the ruling undermines efforts to reform the management culture of South Korea's family-owned conglomerates.

“It’s tragic that a wrongful merger and clear accounting irregularities were ruled as not guilty, and you have to question the roles played by the prosecution and the judiciary that led to this,” said Oh Se Hyung, an official at the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice.

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