Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong's bitter debut


In the eyes of South Koreans, Samsung Electronics Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong has it all.

Born to a father who turned Samsung into a global company and a mother from the nation's bureaucratic elite, the 48-year-old Lee was raised and educated entirely to inherit the electronics empire along with the task of keeping the family legacy.

For years since his succession started in the mid-1990s, he has been widely perceived as the heir apparent to the nation's largest conglomerate.

But not many knew much about the man himself. Not many had heard him speak or met him in person, even among his rank-and-file employees at Samsung.

Only the image of an heir who made it all the way to the top of the world's largest smartphone maker, without ever really being tested, prevailed.

For the first time at a parliamentary hearing held Tuesday, Lee came forward to the public. Unfortunately, it was to apologise profusely.

During the 13-hour parliamentary hearing held to quiz the chiefs of nine industrial titans over their alleged links to President Park Geun-hye and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, Lee was given 436 questions from 18 lawmakers - 60 per cent of the total.

He took a combined 40 minutes to answer them, while the eight other tycoons spent less than five minutes each.

Lee's manner in general, his communication style and even the lip balm he used during a break soon became the talk of the town, although it was all with a mix of satire.

The reaction reflected not only the accrued criticism against Samsung, the largest conglomerate in South Korea prominently involved in the scandal, but also the huge interest in the character of the tech giant's new leader, who long remained elusive.

Without a doubt, the hearing was a debut stage for Lee, though it was a very unpleasant setting.

And it would probably have been the first time for the heir - born with a silver spoon in his mouth and surrounded by people destined to work for him - to encounter such scathing criticism and experience public humiliation, live on television.

The tone of the lawmakers' questions was severe, driving Lee into a corner.

Some even scolded him for having "a bad memory," as he repeatedly said he could not remember when he first heard of Choi and her relationship with Park.

A lawmaker even told Lee he would fail a job interview at Samsung if he kept apologising instead of giving a clear answer.

Despite the lawmakers' fury, Lee kept himself calm, avoiding sensitive questions that could open up the possibility of criminal charges against Samsung executives involved in supporting Choi and her family.

He also made significant comments on his willingness to cut collusive ties to the state.

Lee appears to have succeeded in containing the damage to the reputation of himself and Samsung, and even effectively showed lawmakers to be aggressive opportunists in comparison, even if he lost his invulnerable image in the process.

But he brought on some surprises too, particularly when he said he would give up his management rights "if anyone better suited" than him emerged.

Granted, this is thought to have been just an expression of confidence in himself.

A lawmaker told him the reason he is being targeted the most is because he is the new generation of chaebol (conglomerate), and young enough for change.

Lee agreed, vowing he would change himself first as well as Samsung.

He also promised the disbandment of Samsung's future strategy office, which has been criticised as a thing of the past.

Suspicion over his "magical" succession lingers, of course, as well as his qualifications as a leader of Samsung.

But at the same time, there's also a sense of hope.

The reason Koreans see him as the man who has everything is not just the money and power he holds, but because he has inherited an empire that still remains a source of pride for many Koreans.

The hearing must have been a bitter experience and even stigmatising.

But it has at least provided a lesson for the heir of the real gravity of being the new Samsung leader.