SEOUL — The normally inscrutable Lee Jae-yong allowed himself a smile Monday, when he was suddenly released from prison after serving less than a year of his five-year sentence for bribery, embezzlement and perjury.
A South Korean appeals court concluded that former president Park Geun-hye had "browbeat" Lee, the de facto head of the Samsung conglomerate, into promising $38 million in bribes to her and her confidante.
Even Lee himself appeared surprised when the appeals court delivered its ruling. The court upheld four of the five charges against him in a sensational bribery case that has shaken the South Korean establishment to its core, but it halved his prison sentence and then suspended it for four years.
The 49-year-old Samsung scion was free to go, barely six months after being convicted. The other main figures, Park and her secretive confidante, remain in detention while their trials continue.
"The past year has been a valuable time for self-reflection," Lee, bowing in apology, told reporters waiting outside the prison. "I will look at things more carefully from now on."
Riot police held back protesters who yelled that Lee should still be locked up.
Then Lee got into a waiting black car to be whisked off to see his father, who is technically still the chairman of the Samsung behemoth despite being hospitalized and in a coma since suffering a heart attack almost four years ago.
Conveniently, Lee may have a chance to "contribute to society," as he put it Monday, by the end of this week. He may appear at the Opening Ceremonies of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Friday. Samsung is a major sponsor.
For many South Koreans, this was a sign that, despite the extraordinary events of the past two years, including the impeachment of their president, nothing had fundamentally changed: They still lived in the "Republic of Samsung."
The term — a derogatory one underlining the conglomerate's power in the country — and "Lee Jae-yong probation" began trending on social media after the decision.
"The court has been far more brazen than I expected in letting him off," said Ahn Jin-gul, secretary general of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civil group fighting for better corporate governance. "It is questionable how the law can be so generous toward conglomerate owners while so strict toward workers and ordinary people," he told local reporters after the verdict.
South Korea transformed its economy from postwar agrarian backwater to high-tech powerhouse through "chaebol" conglomerates. They were supported with government subsidies during the 1960s and 1970s, when Park's father was president, and the links between the bureaucracy and the corporate sector remain strong.
That often-incestuous relationship was laid bare with the explosive revelations of 2016: The president's confidante, Choi Soon-sil, was accused of extracting bribes from the conglomerates while promising them favorable treatment.
Choi is now on trial for bribery, as is former president Park, who was impeached last March.
Lee was convicted in July for his role in the scheme. The Seoul Central District Court found him guilty of paying bribes totaling $6.4 million, embezzling corporate money to fund the bribes, then lying about it.
Lee and other Samsung executives were accused of promising to pay $30 million more in bribes to Choi.
The Lee family, which maintains control of the Samsung behemoth through a complicated set of cross-shareholdings, was seeking approval at the time for a crucial merger that would enable the family to pass control from Lee's father to Lee.
Special prosecutors said the Samsung heir arranged the deal during three face-to-face meetings with Park between 2014 and 2016.
But Lee's team of 28 attorneys said he had no knowledge of what his underlings were doing. They appealed the prison sentence. So did the special prosecutors who had charged him and wanted him sentenced to 12 years behind bars.
The appellate court Monday overturned part of the bribery charges and one charge of illegally transferring assets overseas. The court said it was impossible to prove that Lee and Park had hatched the deal in which Lee allegedly paid a $1.6 million bribe to Choi.
"We find no evidence of collusion between power and business here," said presiding appeals court judge Cheong Hyung-sik. He added that Samsung executives had no choice but to "passively comply" with demands made by those with political power.
Lee's defense team signaled that it would continue trying to have all the convictions overturned.
"We respect the court's decision in finding the defendants not guilty on the key indictments," said Lee In-jae of Bae, Kim & Lee, a law firm. (Two other Samsung executives were also released Monday.) "We will do our best during the Supreme Court proceedings to clear the charges of which the court did not fully accept our arguments," he said in a statement forwarded by Samsung.
The case had become a test of President Moon Jae-in's pledge to clean up the corporate sector and create a level playing field. Moon, a progressive, was elected president after Park was impeached.
His ruling Democratic Party said the decision was at odds with public sentiment in South Korea.
"All citizens hoped that the ruling would help sever collusive ties between politics and business and herald the start of a new Republic of Korea," Park Wan-joo, the party's spokesman, told reporters Monday.
Instead, the court's decision will only fuel suspicions that there is "no guilt for the haves, only guilt for the have-nots," he said.
Hank Morris, an American business consultant and longtime Seoul resident, said Samsung has been using all its clout to try to overturn the case, including by hiring fewer people at a time when the Moon administration is focused on job creation.
Even so, he said, things are moving in the right direction.
"There's no magic here," Morris said. "It's still the same old South Korea. It's not going to change in an instant."