SEOUL (Reuters) - He is rarely seen in public and he speaks in soft whispers. But when Lee Kun-hee coughs, South Korea catches a cold.
Lee is the head of the country’s most powerful business group Samsung, a firm synonymous with South Korea’s global success. His business acumen and secretive ways have made him the object of endless fascination and speculation at home.
“People believe Samsung is a company that never fails, which is why to them the person who built up that group with his management skills, Lee Kun-hee, is thought to be god-like.” said Kim Sang-jo, executive director of Solidarity for Economic Reform, which is calling for better corporate governance.
A South Korean special prosecutor on Thursday said it will indict Lee for tax evasion and breach of trust. Analysts speculated he would escape any serious criminal punishment because local judges see him as too valuable to the economy to spend time in jail.
Although Samsung was founded by Lee Byung-chull, third son Lee Kun-hee was at the helm when the run-of-the-mill “chaebol,” or family-controlled business group, sprang into the top ranks of global technology names.
Under his reign, Samsung grew to a giant group with about 60 affiliates, accounting for about one fifth of the country’s exports. Leading its ships-to-insurance business portfolio is Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest maker of memory chips and televisions.
Lee has spawned a cottage industry where his exploits, pronouncements and even menu choices have been eaten up by a ravenous South Korean public, whose lives are saturated with Samsung products and services.
“Lee Kun-hee is said to be the symbol of South Korea’s capitalism, but he is very unlike Western billionaires such as Bill Gates in that he is totally removed from the public eye,” said Kim Hyun-mee, a sociology professor in Yonsei University.
“The discrepancy between his public standing and his avoidance of social activities is what’s generating this huge curiosity about what he likes to eat, wear and do for fun.”
A television drama in 2005 chronicled his rise to power. Lee’s hunched posture, soft voice, round eyes and often surprised expressions, atypical for such a powerful character, are monitored on personal weblogs.
A major Korean daily last week ran a story about the Chinese meal Lee ate before being questioned by the special prosecutor, looking for meaning in the bowl of noodles on his menu.
When Lee, a member of the International Olympic Committee, showed up at an event promoting a South Korean city’s candidacy to the 2014 Winter Olympics wearing earmuffs, national media tracked the items down and said they were Louis Vuitton branded chinchilla numbers retailing at about $2,500.
Several news outlets reported the Korean launch of a brand of top-range Italian suits, dubbed “Lee Kun-hee Suits.”
The French press went abuzz in 2005 when it was reported that Lee had reserved three full ski slopes at the tony Alpine resort of Courchevel for his personal use.
Born in 1942 in the southern city of Uiryeong, Lee graduated from Waseda University in Japan, and attended George Washington University. He started his career at a Samsung-founded broadcaster and reached the group’s chairman post by 1987.
His son is considered as being groomed for the top spot; one of his three daughters committed suicide while living in New York and his wife runs a Samsung-affiliated museum.
Indictments of captains of industry are not unknown in South Korea, where Hyundai group chairman Chung Mong-koo and former Daewoo ruler Kim Woo-choong have both had brushes with the law.
But Lee Kun-hee, holds a unique appeal made up of secrecy, tragedy and unheard-of luxury.
“Lee Kun-hee is the king of the Samsung Republic,” said Kim of Solidarity for Economic Reform.
(Additional reporting by Lee Jiyeon and Park Ju-min)
Writing by Marie-France Han; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Jonathan Thatcher