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 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.
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.
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.