Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics, which transformed the South Korean firm into a global technology titan, died Sunday at the age of 78, the company said.
Under Lee’s leadership, Samsung has become the world’s largest smartphone and memory chip maker, and the firm’s overall turnover today is equivalent to one-fifth of South Korea’s GDP.
Samsung’s meteor rise has helped make Lee the richest and most powerful industrialist in South Korea.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Kun-hee Li, chairman of Samsung Electronics,” the company said in a statement.
“Chairman Lee died on October 25, along with his family, including Vice Chairman JY Lee.
“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung from a local business into the world’s leading innovator and industrial powerhouse,” the firm said, adding that “its legacy will last forever.”
Samsung is by far the largest family-controlled conglomerate, or Chebel, which dominates business in South Korea.
They led the nation’s transition from a war-torn ruin to the world’s 12th-largest economy, but are now accused of dark political relations and stiff competition – Lee himself has twice been convicted of a criminal offense, in one case bribing a president.
When Lee inherited the chairmanship of the Samsung Group in 1987 – founded by his father as a fish and fruit exporter – it was already the largest conglomerate in the country, with everything from consumer electronics to construction.
But has been seen as a producer of cheap, low-quality products.
In 1993, Lee said, “Let’s change everything except our wives and children.”
The company collected and burned all 150,000 mobile phones in its stock, paving the way for the rebirth of the highly successful “Anycall” handset.
Under Lee’s leadership, Samsung became a global behemoth: when it suffered a heart attack in 2014, it was the world’s largest maker of smartphones and memory chips and a major player in semiconductors and LCDs.
Lee rarely spoke to the media, but whenever he broke his long silence, he was often seen intimately with a destructive New Year’s corporate address.
His son, Lee Jae-young, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, has led the company since the 2014 heart attack.
Despite his vast wealth and power, Lee seldom ventured out of the high walls of his private compound in central Seoul to visit the company’s headquarters, earning him the nickname “Hermit King”.
Lee, the third son of Lee Byang-chul, the founder of the Samsung Group, had a soft spot for dogs – he was raised as a child in Japan where he went to school from the age of 11. He was also known as a supercar for movies, horseback riding and extramarital affairs
He studied at the prestigious Waseda University in Japan and earned an MBA from George Washington University in the United States.
He became the group’s vice chairman of construction and commerce at the age of 36, and became chairman of the group nine years after his father’s death.
Lee married Hong Ra-hee – whose father was a justice minister – with whom he had a son and three daughters.
Bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion
The worlds of politics and business were involved in South Korea, and the connection was reflected in Lee’s career.
In 1996, he was convicted of bribing former President Roh Tai-uke to benefit Samsung in a business policy decision.
Lee was also convicted in 2008 of embezzlement and tax evasion in a slash fund scandal that saw him briefly resign from the company leadership.
But the suspended sentence means he has never been in prison and he has been pardoned by two presidents, to further his country’s successful efforts to secure the 2018 Winter Olympics.
A few years later, he sued his older brother and sister, claiming they owned billions of dollars worth of Samsung shares.
He was in medical care after a heart attack, but some details about his condition were never released, which kept him shrouded in mystery even in his last days.