Samsung’s De Facto Leader Leaves Prison—Now Comes the Hard Part

SEOUL—Imprisoned for the past seven months, Samsung ’s de facto leader Lee Jae-yong walked free, after South Korea’s justice ministry pointed to the national economy in granting him parole earlier this week.

He was released roughly a year early from a 30-month sentence for bribing South Korea’s ex-president. As he left a detention center near Seoul on Friday, Mr. Lee, wearing a gray suit and a face mask, apologized to the nation. “I am well aware of all the worry, criticism, concern and expectations I face,” said the 53-year-old grandson of Samsung’s founder.

Now, he has to prove his reprieve was justified.

When Mr. Lee was in prison, his supporters argue, Samsung delayed big investments, avoided major acquisitions and lacked strategic direction. So goes life for the head of a dynastic South Korean conglomerate where power largely centers around a single ruling family member.

His to-do list is significant. Samsung needs to still make final calls on where to build U.S. factories for chips and electric-vehicle batteries. Its biopharmaceuticals production unit needs to land more contracts to become a bigger player in global Covid-19 vaccine production. Extra spending is necessary to gain ground in the chip-foundry sector, semiconductor-industry experts say.

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