It took prosecutors more than six years of investigation and trial to win the rare convictions. Top Samsung executives, like other chaebol leaders, have been found guilty of felonies over the years, but have spent little time behind bars. Lee Kun-hee, the ailing chairman, was convicted twice of bribery and other corruption charges but has never spent a day in jail.
His son Lee Jae-yong, who has essentially run the conglomerate since a heart attack incapacitated his father, was sentenced to five years for bribery in 2017, in connection with a scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, who was convicted of collecting millions of dollars of bribes from Samsung and other big businesses, leading to her ouster and eventual imprisonment. But Mr. Lee was released after less than a year. (The father and son are not related to Lee Sang-hoon.)
“When you think of Samsung, you may first think of its modern image from its smartphones,” said Ha Sung-ae, a religion scholar who has helped organize a support group for Mr. Kim. “But few cases can better illustrate what can happen when you challenge Samsung over its dirty underside than that of Kim Yong-hee.”
Mr. Kim began organizing workers soon after he joined Samsung’s aerospace unit in 1982. He said he was attacked by thugs and kidnapped by Samsung officials, but that it only hardened his determination.
“Knowledge is power,” Mr. Kim wrote by hand in a pamphlet he distributed to workers in 1991, urging them to stand up for their right to unionize, which South Korea’s Constitution guarantees.
That year, Mr. Kim said, a 20-year-old Samsung employee told him she had been raped by her boss, and asked that he help expose him. But Samsung instead accused Mr. Kim of sexually assaulting the woman and fired him, according to court documents.
The woman said in a notarized statement that Mr. Kim had not assaulted her, and he sued Samsung, demanding his job back. The company eventually reinstated him, on the condition that he drop his lawsuit and spend a year at a Samsung construction site in Russia.