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Tributes pour in for late Samsung tycoon

Samsung Electronics building in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)
Samsung Electronics building in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

Tributes poured in from across the worlds of politics, business, the arts and sports for Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee on Sunday.

Lee died at the age of 78 at a hospital in Seoul on Sunday morning with family members by his side, including his son and de facto Samsung Group chief Lee Jae-yong, the conglomerate said in a statement. He had been bedridden since May 2014 after suffering a heart attack.

President Moon Jae-in sent floral wreaths to the late tycoon’s funeral altar set up at Samsung Medical Center in central Seoul, Cheong Wa Dae said.

According to the presidential office, Moon’s chief of staff Noh Young-min and senior economic secretary Lee Ho-seung will visit the memorial soon to convey the president’s personal message of condolences to the bereaved family. 

Politicians across the aisle mourned the death of the legendary tycoon who built a local manufacturer of electronic appliances into a global information technology powerhouse now buttressing South Korea’s economy.

But their tones were distinctly different, as liberals and progressives -- traditionally more critical of chaebol or large, family-run business conglomerates like Samsung -- touched upon past wrongdoings and controversies involving him.

While expressing “deep condolences,” Rep. Lee Nak-yon, leader of the ruling Democratic Party, said the country should reflect on the late chairman’s legacies both positive and negative, referring to them as “light and shadow.”

“He led changes in each crisis through innovative leadership of ‘new management,’ ‘creative management’ and ‘talent management.’ As a result, Samsung took a leap to become a global company of electronics, semiconductors and cellphones,” Lee wrote on his Facebook.

“But we cannot neglect the drawbacks,” he said, citing the consolidation of a chaebol-focused economic system and anti-union corporate policy.

“He also left behind the shadows of opaque corporate governance, tax evasion and cozy relations between politics and corporations,” the ruling party chief said, expressing the hope that Samsung would be born again by breaking away from its past wrongdoings.

Conservatives praised Lee with expressions like “great man,” “big star” and “pioneer,” highlighting his contributions to South Korea’s economic development.

Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the main opposition People Power Party, said, “The future generations will remember Chairman Lee’s story which catapulted Samsung and South Korea’s status high in the world.”

Tech entrepreneur-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo, who leads the minor opposition People’s Party, mourned the fall of “a big, guiding star” for South Korea’s economy.

“We all need to emulate his visionary sense, challenging and innovative spirit,” he said.

The local business community also issued statements mourning the death of Lee, while also praising his leadership.

“Chairman Lee was the business world’s best leader who not only developed Samsung into a top-tier company, but also catapulted South Korea’s economy to the level of developed countries,” the Federation of Korean Industries said in a statement.

“Lee’s innovative spirit, who had said ‘change everything except your wife and children,’ will forever remain in the hearts of us businesspeople,” the group said. “Succeeding his spirit as legacy, we will use as a foothold for reform the crisis facing our economy.”

The Korea Employers Federation praised the tycoon’s “dauntless spirit and strong leadership” that has led the industry’s development here.

Quoting Lee’s remark that said “the industry’s sovereignty continues to flow so we should never cease to strive,” the federation said Lee’s passion for technology development transformed Samsung “from a small company in Asia that manufactured black-and-white TVs into the world’s leading company that guides global information and communication technology.”

“We wish for Samsung’s ceaseless development as it is on its way to become a 100-year-old company,” it said. “We will inherit Lee’s entrepreneur spirit, who provided direction to South Korean economy through his strong leadership in every crisis and we will do our best to overcome the current economic hardship and revive economic vitality.”

The Korea Chamber of Commerce also remembered Lee for his immense contributions to the Korean economy.

“He led Samsung’s transformation and success, giving us courage that we can also become the world’s greatest, while developing the South Korean economy to higher value-added cutting-edge industry through continuously blazing a trail in future industry and active investments,” it said.

Meanwhile, labor groups pointed to Samsung’s labor rights abuses as among Lee’s negative legacies.

“Just like everyone else, Lee’s life is clear with achievements and faults,” said the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, one of the nation’s two largest umbrella labor organizations.

“Cozy relations between politics and corporations, ‘no-union’ policy and labor repression cast a dark shadow.

“We hope Samsung will work hard to be reborn as a company that is loved by the citizens and for Lee’s wish of creating a global company to continue.”

Park Sang-in, director of Seoul-based civic group Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, added that while the late tycoon deserves every bit of praise for the remarkable achievements he made in business, he fell short of becoming “a leader to look up to” due in part to the unlawful tactics he employed to pass down control of the Samsung empire to his son, Lee Jae-yong. 

“(The Samsung chairman) was not free of typical problems of chaebol, (like the illicit management succession from father to son) for which Lee Jae-yong, Samsung Electronics vice chairman, is now standing trial.” 
  
By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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