Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee Dies at 78

SEOUL—Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who transformed a second-tier electronics parts maker into the world’s biggest manufacturer of smartphones and televisions, died Sunday after lying incapacitated in a hospital for more than half a decade. He was 78 years old.

Mr. Lee, who at the time of his death remained chairman of Samsung, had been hospitalized since May 2014 after a heart attack left him incapacitated. He already had been in fragile health and was treated for lung cancer in the late 1990s.

During his more than three decades at the helm of Samsung, South Korea’s biggest conglomerate in which Samsung Electronics Co. is the crown jewel, Mr. Lee transformed the company into a global brand that sells everything from smartphones and semiconductors to life insurance and roller-coaster rides. By all measures, he exceeded every expectation, pushing the company to the No. 1 position globally in televisions, smartphones and memory chips.

Mr. Lee, whose father founded Samsung, became chairman in 1987. He implored executives to consider changing everything but their wife and children. He sought to boost Samsung’s brand through the Olympics, with the company becoming a top-tier sponsor and Mr. Lee serving as an International Olympic Committee delegate. In 2009, South Korea’s president pardoned Mr. Lee, imploring him to help land the 2018 Winter Olympics for the country. It worked.

It wasn’t Mr. Lee’s first presidential pardon. He was convicted twice, in 1995 for bribing President Roh Tae-woo and then in 2008 for embezzlement and tax evasion. At the time, Mr. Lee said the payments in the earlier case were customary, not bribes, and he pleaded not guilty in the latter.

Even in absentia in his final years, Mr. Lee continued to define the company, especially as the conglomerate’s attempts to pass dynastic control onto his only son, 52-year-old vice chairman Lee Jae-yong, sparked ongoing legal cases into alleged bribery and financial fraud.

Lee Kun-hee’s death will raise fresh questions about succession at Samsung. Mr. Lee is the company’s largest individual shareholder, though transferring it to his son or two surviving daughters faces challenges due to South Korea’s 50% inheritance tax.

Samsung, in a statement Sunday, didn’t say who would replace Mr. Lee. His son, who was groomed for years as the likely successor, had assumed the role of the group’s de facto leader in the years since his father’s hospitalization.

“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” the company said. “His legacy will be everlasting.”

Write to Elizabeth Koh at [email protected] and Jonathan Cheng at [email protected]

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