Great Britain

Lee Kun-hee, Samsung Electronics chairman, dies aged 78

The Samsung Electronics chairman, Lee Kun-hee, who made the South Korean company a global name, has died at the age of 78.

Under Lee’s leadership Samsung rose to become the world’s largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, with overall turnover equivalent to a fifth of South Korea’s GDP.

Known for a reclusive lifestyle, Lee was left bedridden by a heart attack in 2014. Little was revealed about his condition, leaving him shrouded in mystery even in his final days.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Kun-hee Lee, chairman of Samsung Electronics,” said a company statement.

“Chairman Lee passed away on October 25 with his family, including vice-chairman Jay Y Lee, by his side … His legacy will be everlasting.”

Samsung is by far the biggest of the family-controlled conglomerates. These chaebols dominate business in South Korea and drove its transformation from a war-ravaged ruin to the world’s 12th-largest economy. Nowadays they are under scrutiny for murky political ties and stifling competition – with Lee himself twice convicted of criminal offences, in one case bribing a president.

When Lee inherited the chairmanship of the group in 1987 – it had been founded by his father to deal in fish, fruit and noodles – Samsung was already the country’s largest conglomerate, with operations ranging from consumer electronics to construction.

Lee sharpened its focus and took it global: by the time he suffered a heart attack in 2014 it was the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips. It is also a major global player in semiconductors and LCD displays.

Lee seldom ventured out from the high walls of his private compound in central Seoul to visit the company headquarters, earning him the nickname the “hermit king”.

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

The son 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.

With the Associated Press

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