«It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Lee Kun-hee, President of Samsung ElectronicsThe group said. Lee Kun-hee, who turned the group into a global telecommunications giant, had been bedridden since a heart attack in 2014.
South Korea’s richest and most powerful industrialist had made Samsung Electronics a global telecommunications giant, while leading a lonely existence. When he inherited the chairmanship of the Samsung group, founded by his father, in 1987, the company was the largest conglomerate in the country, with a business line ranging from consumer electronics to construction.
Lee Kun-hee then concentrated the activity of the company to make it an international group. When it suffered a heart attack in 2014, Samsung was the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones and memory chips.
The Hermit King
However, Lee Kun-hee rarely ventured outside his private estate in central Seoul to get to the company’s headquarters. This earned him the nickname “Hermit King”.
Today, Samsung is by far the largest of the country’s “chaebols”, family-controlled conglomerates behind the dramatic recovery from the Korean War, now the 12th largest economy in the world.
They are accused of having opaque links with political power and of hampering all competition. Lee Kun-hee was himself convicted of bribery in 1996, then bribery and tax evasion in 2008. But he escaped jail, having been given a suspended sentence.
His visionary spirit has largely contributed to making Samsung Electronics, today the flagship of the group, one of the world’s leading developers and producers of semiconductors, mobile phones and LCD screens.
“President Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung by making a local company a global leader in innovation and industrial power,” the company said.
At the start of Lee Kun-hee’s presidency, Samsung was seen as a maker of low-quality and cheap products. “Let’s change everything except our women and our children,” he said in 1993.
The company then made a clean sweep of its products and burned the 150,000 cell phones it had in stock. Soon after, he ordered the display of products made in China at its Samsung headquarters, explaining the importance of showing how China had quickly caught up.
In meetings with his subordinates and in rare interviews, Lee Kun-hee has always stressed the importance of having bright minds. “In the era of limitless competition, winning or losing will depend on a small number of geniuses … A genius will feed 100,000 people,” he said.
Lee Kun-hee, third son of Samsung group founder Lee Byung-chull, had a soft spot for dogs dating back to his time in Japan, where he was educated at the age of 11. He was also known for his love of movies, horseback riding and big foreign cars.
Lee Kun-hee studied at the prestigious Waseda University in Japan and received an MBA from George Washington University in the United States. At the age of 36, he became vice president of the group’s construction and trade branch, before taking over the presidency of Samsung nine years later, on the death of his father.
Lee Kun-hee was married to Hong Ra-hee whose father was Minister of Justice. With her, he had a son and three daughters, the youngest committed suicide in 2005 while a student in New York.
After his heart attack his true state of health was never revealed, leaving his existence surrounded by a halo of mystery until the end.