Lee, the 202nd richest person in the world according to Forbes magazine with a net worth of $11.4bn, was jailed in January for bribery, embezzlement and other offences in connection with a corruption scandal that brought down ex-South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The justice ministry announced on Monday he had been paroled – among approximately 800 early releases – citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the economy.
Lee bowed to reporters waiting outside a detention centre south of Seoul on Friday and told them: “I have caused too much concern to the people. I’m really sorry.”
Wearing a dark grey suit, the 53-year-old looked thinner than when he was last detained in January. He had spent seven months in prison after a court in Seoul ordered him back to jail.
“I am listening to the concerns, criticisms, worries and high expectations for me. I will work hard,” Lee said.
Lee was originally convicted in 2017 and was sentenced to five years in jail.
He denied wrongdoing and the sentence was later reduced and suspended on appeal, and he was released after serving a year.
However, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, and the Seoul High Court sentenced him in January this year to two-and-a-half years in prison.
There is a long history of top South Korean tycoons being charged with bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion, or other offences.
But many of those convicted have subsequently had their sentences cut or suspended on appeal, with some – including late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted twice – receiving presidential pardons in recognition of their “contribution to the national economy”.
“This is undeniably preferential treatment, especially given that a separate trial is still going on,” Song Won-keun, an economics professor at Gyeongsang National University, told the AFP news agency.
In a symbolic move, Samsung Electronics on Thursday announced it had signed its first agreements with four company labour unions.
Lee pledged in May 2020 to improve labour rights at the technology giant.
Despite his parole, Lee remains banned from returning to work at Samsung for five years under the Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Specific Economic Crimes, according to the Yonhap news agency. That ban has not been lifted so far.
He is also required to report to the parole office in advance if he plans to move his residence or leave the country for more than a month, among other things.
Lee is facing a separate trial over the merger of two Samsung affiliates and as well as his alleged illegal use of the anaesthesia-inducing medicine, propofol, Yonhap said.