World

Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee dies at 78 after long illness

SEOUL: Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee, who transformed the South Korean company into a global tech titan, died at the age of 78 yesterday, the company said. He had spent more than six years in hospital following a heart attack.

Under Mr Lee's leadership, Samsung rose to become the world's largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, and the company's overall turnover today is equivalent to a fifth of South Korea's gross domestic product.

Samsung's meteoric rise helped make Mr Lee South Korea's richest and most powerful industrialist.

When Mr Lee inherited the chairmanship of the Samsung group in 1987, it was already the country's largest conglomerate, with operations ranging from consumer electronics to construction. But it was seen as a shoddy producer of cheap, low-quality products.

"Let's change everything except our wives and kids," Mr Lee said in 1993.

Samsung gathered up and burnt all 150,000 mobile phones it had in stock, paving the way for the rebirth of the highly successful Anycall handset.

GLOBAL BEHEMOTH

With Mr Lee at the helm, Samsung became a global behemoth: By the time he suffered a heart attack in 2014, it was the world's biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips, and a major player in semiconductors.

"Lee is such a symbolic figure in South Korea's spectacular rise and how South Korea embraced globalisation, that his death will be remembered by so many Koreans," said chief executive Chung Sun-sup of corporate researcher company Chaebul.com.

But he was also convicted of bribery and tax evasion, and he and the empire he built were vilified for wielding huge economic clout, and for opaque governance and dubious transfers of the family wealth.

Ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon praised Mr Lee's leadership but said: "It can't be denied that he reinforced chaebol-led economic structure and failed to recognise labour unions."

His son, Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, has been at the helm of the company since the 2014 heart attack.

He was jailed for five years in 2017 after being found guilty of bribery and other offences linked to former president Park Geun-hye, before being cleared of the most serious charges on appeal and released a year later. That case is being retried. - AFP, REUTERS

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