Lee Kun-hee, the long-time chairman of Samsung Group who transformed the conglomerate into one of the world’s largest business empires, died today at the age of 78, according to reports from South Korean leading news agency Yonhap.
The story of Samsung is deeply intertwined with the history of its home country, which is sometimes dubbed “The Republic of Samsung.” Lee, the son of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, came to power in the late 1980s just as South Korea transitioned from dictatorship to democracy with the political handover from military strongman Chun Doo-hwan to Roh Tae-woo. Under his management, Samsung spearheaded initiatives across a number of areas in electronics, including semiconductors, memory chips, displays, and other components that are the backbone of today’s digital devices.
Lee navigated the challenging economic troubles of the 1990s, including the 1998 Asian financial crisis, which saw a near collapse of the economies of South Korea and several other so-called Asian Tigers, as well as the Dot-Com bubble, which saw the collapse of internet stocks globally.
Coming out of those challenging years, Lee invested in and is probably most famous today for building up the conglomerate’s Galaxy consumer smartphone line, which evolved Samsung from an industrial powerhouse to a worldwide consumer brand. Samsung Electronics, which is just one of a spider web of Samsung companies, is today worth approximately $350 billion, making it among the most valuable companies in the world.
While his business acumen and strategic insights handling Samsung were lauded, he faced troubles in recent years. He was convicted of tax evasion in the late 2000s, but was ultimately pardoned by the country’s then president Lee Myung-bak (no relation).
Samsung has also been under fire from groups including Elliott Management over chairman Lee’s attempts to secure the financial future of Samsung for his son, Lee Jae-yong, who took over effective leadership of the conglomerate following the elder Lee’s heart attack in 2014. Lee Jae-yong has suffered his own run-ins with the law, having been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to five years in prison, which was ultimately suspended by a judge.
After his heart attack, Lee Kun-hee remained hospitalized in stable condition according to Yonhap. Rumors of his condition have percolated in the six years since.
According to Bloomberg, Lee leaves behind roughly $20 billion in wealth, and he is the wealthiest South Korean citizen. He is survived by his wife as well as four children.