* Samsung heir served 18 months in jail for bribery
* Businessmen were convicted in scandal that felled a
* S.Korea says leaders needed to help overcome economic
* Samsung may increase investment with Lee pardoned -
(Adds political context, comment from civil rights group and
SEOUL, Aug 12 (Reuters) - South Korea's President Yoon
Suk-yeol pardoned Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman
Jay Y. Lee on Friday, with the justice ministry saying the
business leader was needed to help overcome a "national economic
The pardon is largely symbolic, with Lee already out on
parole after serving 18 months in jail for bribery in a scandal
that led to massive protests and brought down then-President
Park Geun-hye in 2017.
However, analysts said the pardon should mean Lee will be
able to carry out business activities with fewer legal
restrictions, and could herald some large investments from
Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone and memory-chip maker.
"With urgent needs to overcome the national economic crisis,
we carefully selected economic leaders who lead the national
growth engine through active technology investment and job
creation to be pardoned," Justice Minister Han Dong Hoon told a
Tech- and export-dependent South Korea, Asia's
fourth-largest economy is grappling with soaring inflation,
weakening demand, poor sentiment and slowing spending.
Lee, an heir of Samsung's founding family, welcomed the
decision and vowed to work hard for the national economy "with
continuous investment and job creation."
Also pardoned by the pro-business Yoon was Lotte Group
chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was sentenced to a
two-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges of bribery, also
related to Park.
In a statement, Lotte said Shin would also help in
"overcoming the complex global crisis."
Park herself was pardoned late last year by her successor,
liberal president Moon Jae-in, who struggled to follow through
on campaign vows to clean up business and politics.
A survey conducted last month jointly by four pollsters
showed that 77% of respondents favored pardoning the Samsung
leader, despite the earlier protests.
"(That support) is apparently due to the current economic
situation, but people also seem to have thought in part that Lee
was somewhat in a position where he could not shrug off pressure
from the former administration," said Eom Kyeong-young, a
political commentator based in Seoul.
While business groups including the Korea Chamber of
Commerce & Industry and Korea Enterprises Federation welcomed
the pardon for Lee, civil rights groups criticized Yoon's
pardons for businessmen.
"The Yoon Suk-yeol administration... is ultimately just
aiming for a country only for the rich," People's Solidarity for
Participatory Democracy said in a statement.
Another jailed former president, Lee Myung-bak, had been
expected to be pardoned after Yoon raised the possibility in
June, but was ultimately not on the list. He was arrested in
2018 and sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption,
embezzlement and bribery.
BACK IN BUSINESS
Analysts have long expected decisions on major projects and
investments once Lee was reinstated, with company sources saying
such decisions should only be made by Lee.
"This removes the employment restriction Lee was technically
under," said Park Ju-gun, head of research firm Leaders Index.
"And projects that were being pursued by Samsung, such as
major M&A or investments, these could be tied to the pardon."
Even before receiving the presidential pardon, Lee had
returned to the limelight, appearing in May with President Yoon
and U.S. President Joe Biden when they visited Samsung's
Pyeongtaek chip production facilities.
He has also visited Europe in June to meet ASML Holding NV
CEO Peter Wennink, discussing the adoption of key
high-end chip equipment.
Last November, Samsung decided on Taylor, Texas as the site
of a new $17 billion chip plant.
Top Samsung executives have hinted earlier this year at
potential upcoming acquisition activity. Samsung Electronics has
not conducted a high-profile deal since it completed its
purchase of audio electronics maker Harman for $8 billion in
Although macroeconomic factors such as a demand downturn may
weigh on investment decisions, Samsung has a huge war chest.
Samsung Electronics' cash balance increased slightly to 125
trillion won ($95.13 billion) as of end-June, from 111 trillion
a year earlier.
While experts say Lee could now more freely participate in
management, his legal woes persist due to an ongoing trial where
he faces the risk of returning to jail if found guilty of
charges of fraud and stock manipulation.
Shares in Samsung Electronics closed up 0.5% versus
benchmark KOSPI's 0.2% rise. Lotte Corp
shares were down 0.6%.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee, Soo-hyang Choi, Heekyong Yang; Editing
by Lincoln Feast)