“Chairman Lee is a true visionary who has transformed Samsung from a local business into a world-renowned innovator and industrial powerhouse,” a statement said Sunday.
Under Lee’s three decades of leadership, Samsung Electronics has grown from a small television manufacturer to the world’s largest maker of smartphones, electronic displays and memory chips.
Lee was born in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Korea. His father, Lee Baing-chul, founded Samsung as a small business in the southeastern city of Daegu. After inheriting the company in 1987, Lee Kun-hee launched a quality improvement drive to erase Samsung’s reputation for cheap copycat accessories.
Speaking at an emergency meeting with executives, Lee Kun-hee said, “Change everything except your wife and children,” which he resolved to address as a “life or death situation” facing the company. Sunday’s announcement recalled his innovation-oriented leadership by referring to that moment: “The announcement of ‘New Management’ in 1993 was the driver who inspired the company’s vision to provide the best technology in developing the global community.”
In 1995, he ordered the burning of nearly 50 million cell phones and fax machines, of low quality. According to media reports at the time, more than 2,000 Samsung employees wearing headbands called “quality first” saw the bonfire.
Samsung Electronics is the flagship of the Samsung Group, an extensive powerhouse with dozens of subsidiaries, ranging from shipbuilding to life insurance. Samsung is the largest and most powerful of the so-called “chabol”, family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. Many Chaibol businessmen, including Lee Kun-hee, were convicted of white-collar crimes, but later apologized as the Korean government and people sought to stem the economic collapse due to their absence.
Lee Kun-hee has been convicted twice, but his imprisonment has been twice suspended by the courts, a common practice that helps businessmen return to their jobs without retaliation.
In 2008, he stepped down from the leadership after being accused of managing slush funds and tax evasion to give company shares to his children. He came to power two years after the presidential apology. Another apology was made in 1995 after he was convicted of bribing a former president.
Lee Kun-hee’s business empire has also been embroiled in a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, who was appointed President Moon Jae-in in 2017.
Five years in prison for bribing Samsung boss Lee Jae-yong to the park, her loyalty to help maintain her control over Samsung. He spent a year behind bars before the appellate court reduced his sentence and released him.
Moon will send mourning flowers to the funeral, his spokesman Kang Min-seok said Sunday.
Samsung has not yet officially announced plans for an opaque three-generation dynasty. Lee Kun-hee has been hospitalized for the past six years, with his only son Lee Jae-yong serving as Samsung’s actual chief.