Samsung chairman returns to South Korea after extended stay overseas

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee, the powerful head of South Korea's largest business conglomerate, returned home Saturday for the first time since leaving the country last year for a medical check in the United States, a Samsung spokesman said. 

Lee, who left for the United States in September, returned to South Korea from Japan, where he had stayed since late December, said Samsung spokesman Yim Jun-seok. Lee, 64, underwent surgery for lung cancer in the United States several years ago. 

Speculation over Lee's return had been intense since his departure amid a presidential campaign finance scandal in which he and two others had been implicated.  

The scandal involved revelations of extensive spy agency wiretaps in the late 1990s of South Korea's political, corporate and media elite. 

South Korean 24-hour television station YTN showed footage of a frail-looking Lee sitting in a wheelchair and speaking to reporters after arrival at Seoul's Gimpo Airport. Yim said that Lee, a member of the International Olympic Committee, will not attend the IOC general assembly meeting next week in Turin, Italy. 

Samsung Group is South Korea's largest family-owned conglomerate, or chaebol. Samsung Electronics Co., the country's largest corporation and a major global manufacturer of memory chips, semiconductors and consumer electronics, is the group's flagship company. 

Prosecutors in December decided not to indict Lee, top Samsung executive Lee Hak-soo and Hong Seok-hyun, the former publisher of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, after clearing them of suspicions they colluded to embezzle 10 billion won (US$10.3 million; euro8.6 million) from Samsung affiliates to provide illicit campaign funds to candidates in the 1997 presidential election, as well as for bribes to prosecutors at the time. 

The Seoul District Prosecutors' Office said there was insufficient evidence of embezzlement and that the statute of limitations on any bribery charges had expired. 

The scandal surfaced in July after revelations of a 1997 wiretapped phone conversation between Hong and Lee Hak-soo, who purportedly discussed providing illicit campaign funds to candidates in the presidential race, won by former dissident Kim Dae-jung. 

The extensive wiretappings highlighted continued abuses of power in South Korea despite the end of military-backed governments and brought back memories of collusion between top conglomerates and politicians _ one of the inveterate ills of South Korean politics. 

Hong, Lee Kun-hee's brother-in-law, stepped down as South Korea's ambassador to the United States in September amid the scandal. Samsung apologized to the nation, expressing regret that "social confusion was fostered and anxiety caused to the Korean people.'' 

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