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Is Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee dead or alive?

Lee Jae-yong, the only son of Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee, looks at a photo of his father at the Ho-am Art Museum in Seoul on Dec. 30, 2012. 
Lee Jae-yong, the only son of Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee, looks at a photo of his father at the Ho-am Art Museum in Seoul on Dec. 30, 2012. 
John Power
Written by John Power
For almost a year, South Korea’s most powerful business figure has reportedly spent his days and nights in a nondescript Gangnam neighborhood, recuperating at a hospital bearing the name of his company empire.

But 11 months after Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee entered Samsung Medical Center following a heart attack, the country’s largest business group is maintaining a veil of secrecy over its leader’s health and the future of its management.

Samsung Group officials have provided only vague, impossible-to-verify updates about his health, claiming it is good or improving almost since his collapse.

“We don’t get informed about his condition either,” Song Chul-kyu, a spokesman for Samsung Group, said in a phone interview with The Korea Observer Monday.

“I have nothing particular to say except that his condition has improved from before.”

He denied speculation that Lee is in a coma or breathing with the help of a respirator but refused to elaborate further.

Victoria Kedzie, a public relations official for Samsung, was also elusive in her answer, presenting no evidence to back up her claim that Lee has regained his cognitive functions.

“Chairman Lee is in stable condition with his cardiac and other bodily functions recovered to normal,” she said in an email interview.

The lack of any independent confirmation of Lee’s condition has even spawned speculation that he died some time ago.

The AsiaN reported that Lee Kun-hee died on May 16, 2014

The AsiaN’s article on Lee Kun-hee’s death on May 16, 2014

The news website AsiaN claimed on May 16, 2014 that the Samsung patriarch had passed away, citing a whistleblower inside the firm. The outlet deleted the article seven months later, saying it was unable to obtain further information to substantiate the claim.

Lee Yun-hee, a reporter at Economic Review, said that Samsung has been far from forthcoming in informing the media of Lee’s condition.

“They (Samsung) are just saying he is well repeatedly,” she said. “But no one can see him at the hospital. It is just from Samsung itself and some executives in Samsung. No journalist in Korea can check a simple fact.”

She added there is widespread skepticism in the Korean media about Lee recovering to the point of being able to return to managerial duties.

“One of the Samsung executives said to the media he shows a response in his eyes to being called,” she said. “It (probably) meant he still has a lot of trouble using his body maybe except for his eyes.”

Critics say that the public and company shareholders have a right to clearer information about Lee’s condition.

“The health of the CEO is an important requisite influencing the value of a company,” Kang Jeong-Min, a researcher at Solidarity for Economic Reform, a local civic group, told The Korea Observer.

“Back when there was controversy over the health of Apple’s Steve Jobs, there were also demands in the United States to make the CEO’s exact condition public and settle uncertainly in the market; eventually, as we know, (Jobs) wasn’t able to carry the business forward. The case of Samsung is the same.”

Despite his absence from the business group, Lee earned 178.8 billion won ($165 million) in dividends from Samsung Electronics last year.

Kang also called for greater transparency regarding the widely anticipated, but as yet unannounced, transfer of managerial control to Lee’s son Jae-yong.

“The speculation in the market now is rampant because chairman Lee Kun-hee’s health has deteriorated in a situation where he is the chairman of Samsung Group and there hasn’t been any  transfer of shares and control,” he said.

“If it was an ideal company, the market would be made aware of his exact condition and the plan for succession would be discussed in his absence.” 
“If it was an ideal company, the market would be made aware of his exact condition and the plan for succession would be discussed in his absence.”

The Korea Observer visited the hospital Friday for an update on Lee’s condition, but was angrily rebuffed by Samsung officials. After taking the elevator to the 20th floor, the reported location of the hospital’s VIP rooms, a security guard emerged from behind a locked door leading onto the ward.

The guard said he had no comment to make on Lee’s condition and denied that the floor contained VIP suites.

As he escorted this reporter to the ground floor, he phoned his colleagues to inform them of the presence of a journalist. A group of Samsung officials, identified by company badges, arrived at the ground floor, where a visibly angry Samsung official asked for The Korea Observer’s affiliation and purpose of visit.

He said he had no comment to make on Lee’s condition, adding that even “official media” could not get access to such information. A second security guard followed this reporter while exiting the hospital, taking notes in a notepad.

Lee Tae-hoon, publisher of the Korea Observer, contributed this article.

The following are some of the netizen comments left in response to an article that raised questions about Lee’s condition. 

In-Kirl Chung: People in a vegetative state also receive rehabilitation treatment.식인간도 재활치료는 한답니다.

NO_NICKNAME How can an unconscious person sit in a wheel chair?의식이 없는사람이 휠체어 앉아?

Jaemoon Gim : I bet he is already dead. They are doing all the tricks to avoid the inheritance taxes of 10 trillion won.벌써 고인됐다 에 내목아지 반쯤건다 니미~상속세 10조원 안낼려고 온갖꼼수 ㅉ

lordservant  As one media outlet claimed, Lee Kun-hee may have died a long time ago. If he is fit enough to sit in a wheel chair, they would have taken a photo of him in the wheel chair and made it public to those who are concerned about the future of Samsung Electronics. But they aren”t even doing this. 어느 매체 주장처럼 이건희, 이 양반 벌써 이 세상을 떠났는지도 몰라. 휠체어에 앉을 정도 되었다면서 삼성전자의 앞날을 우려하는 국내외 인사들을 위해 휠체어에 앉아 있는 모습이라도 찍어 공개할 만한데 이 것 조차 없다.

pian If Samsung is lying about Lee Kun-hee”s death, it would need to sell one of Samsung”s affiliates to pay all the fines and penalties imposed for investors. The amount of compensation would be gigantic.이건희님이 사망한 것을 숨겼다면 엄청난 배상을 투자가 소액투자가들에게 지불해야하는 삼성이고 그 금액과 벌금 순이 아마 삼성내 하나의 기업이 거덜나는 정도다.

About the author

John Power

John Power

John Power is a journalist who has been based in Seoul, South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Mail, NK News, Sisa-In Magazine, UCA News, Asian Geographic and The Korea Herald. Follow him on Twitter @John_F_Power.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    There’s no shot that Samsung or anyone else is covering up Lee Keun-hee’s death. Samsung is a publicly traded company, and failure to report the CEO’s death would cause huge regulatory problems for Samsung. I’d think that Korean law would also have something to say about failure to register a death in a timely manner.

    • Anonymous_Joe

      BTW, if he is in fact already dead, then the hospital, Lee’s family, or Lee’s caretakers will eventually have to produce a body to declare him legally dead. Any post-mortem that showed Lee had been dead for any length of time would be a problem for the hospital, Lee’s family, and Lee’s caretakers.

      As I posted earlier, vegetative state: maybe; dead: no shot.

  • jimmy6p

    I don’t think the man is dead but I don’t think he’s in any condition to do his job. If Lee Kun-hee was awake and able to talk we would have seen him and heard him speak. All this secrecy can only mean one thing. Samsung has something to hide, and they’re hiding it. There can be no other reason why no one has seen the man for so long.

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  • Yurii Samoilenko

    Hello dear Angela Jeong !

    Thank You for your message and Your fate in the quest to abolish the
    tradition of Korean people eat dogs ! I – Samoylenko Yurii from Ukraine,
    city Kherson, I am 59, and agrees with You: “to eat dogs, especially
    puppies that evoke a sense of emotion, desires to pet a puppy… not !”.
    But there are centuries-old traditions of peoples… Many wish to eat
    beef, chicken, pork… but history knows the “paradoxes” : Adolf Hitler
    was a vegetarian, but grief brought a lot more than 40 million people
    died… we must not forget that Man is essentially carnivorous, the
    length of the intestine,can not fully receive the energy of herbs,
    vegetables…it’s not enough for a healthy reaction to mental system of
    the person. the World ! Overreliance on anything produces fanaticism,
    and fanatics worse than a nuclear war !!!
    I worked in
    1985 -86 year in South Korea shipyard “Daewoo” city of OKPO, as the
    transfer command (an electronics engineer) the floating dock of the
    shipyard “Pallada” city Kherson, so I know about features of Korean meat
    dogs !!! We respect the traditions of the peoples…it is important to
    those animals whose meat consume humanity, do not even have time to
    understand – to feel that they have lost their existence, that is left
    painless technology allows us to do so! My interaction with Korean
    colleagues – the most pleasant memories, I would love them to see each
    other again…Koreans from South Korea, very kind, nice, sincere
    people… and Koreans from North Korea are not as sorry as dogs ? And
    their lives are worse than dogs … But I still support You in the
    desire not to eat the dogs food !!!
    Dear Angela Jeong,
    in Ukraine, where I live, more terrible situation than to eat dogs, it
    is total corruption, my people Ukrainians (many) are fed worse than
    dogs, although we have the World’s best black soil !!!
    have to ask You: do You have opportunities to find sponsors for me to
    implement my below described project ?! The materialization of my
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    project, to overthrow the regime of looters of the President of Petro
    Poroshenko with his plebeians…Unas in Ukraine in the Donbass war with
    the “evil dwarf” -Vladimir Putin…
    Thank You in advance ! I wish you success.
    I propose to implement an ambitious project with the introduction of innovative technologies,
    not having analogues in the world !

    The essence of the project as the final product: construction of a car
    factory: the car engine has an energy source which has no analogues in
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    the construction of the plant the Ukrainian city of Kherson is in
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    technological discoveries.For example : treatment of metals by means of
    ultrasound, it is the experience of my graduation project is still the
    eighties of the last vacay! Not all Academy in the world who know this
    technology … For the project, I specifically came back from London
    where I lived from 1998-1999.
    To find funding in the
    totally corrupt Ukraine today – impossible! So I’m looking for sponsors,
    donors, gentelmans funding – seed capital to manufacture a working
    model of the engine, I need 60000.00 $ (sixty thousand dollars) which I
    have already invested in your project !!!
    With the full
    implementation of the project (plant), the annual profit from the
    project will be to seek two billion dollars or more. Even if at first
    only to produce themselves to power systems (hybrid engines), the annual
    volume of production will have hundreds of millions of dollars!

    Iurii Samoilenko Email : & Ukraine.

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