Lee Kun-hee: the “hermit king” of the Samsung empire

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South Korea’s richest and most powerful industrialist Lee Kun-hee, who died at the age of 78 on Sunday, had made Samsung Electronics a global telecommunications giant while leading a lonely existence.

• Read also: Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee has passed away

When he inherited the chairmanship of the Samsung group, founded by his father, in 1987, the company was the country’s largest conglomerate, with a business line ranging from consumer electronics to construction.

Mr. Lee 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 maker of smartphones and memory chips.

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”, the family-controlled conglomerates behind the prodigious recovery from the Korean War, today the 12th.e economy to the world.

They are accused of having opaque links with political power and of hampering all competition. Mr. Lee was himself convicted of bribery in 1996, then bribery and tax evasion in 2008. But he escaped jail, having received 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 Mr. Lee’s presidency, Samsung was seen as a manufacturer 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.

Mysterious existence

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, Mr. Lee has always stressed the importance of having bright minds.

“In the age of limitless competition, winning or losing will depend on a small number of geniuses … One genius will feed 100,000 people,” he said.

Mr Lee, the third son of Samsung group founder Lee Byung-chull, had a fondness 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 cinema, horseback riding and big foreign cars.

Mr. Lee studied at the prestigious Waseda University, Japan, and held 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 becoming president of Samsung nine years later, when his father died.

Mr. Lee was known to spend several months in Hawaii and Japan before making strategic decisions, including appointing his son Lee Jae-yong as vice president of Samsung Electronics in 2013.

He worked hard for his country to win the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Mr. Lee was married to Hong Ra-hee, whose father served as 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 shrouded in a halo of mystery until the end.

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