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Samsung sends apology letters to father of leukemia victim from semiconductor factory

The Hankyoreh 24 April 2020 | Koo Bon-kwon, senior staff writer

Hwang Sang-ki has spent the last 13 years calling for Samsung to take responsibility for its negligence

On Apr. 21, a letter arrived for Hwang Sang-ki, president of Banollim, the human rights watchdog group for semiconductor workers, and father of Hwang Yu-mi, who passed away from acute leukemia after working at a Samsung Electronics semiconductor factory. It was an apology sent by Samsung Electronics CEO Kim Ki-nam.

“The late Hwang Yu-mi and her family members endured suffering for a long time, and Samsung Electronics failed to provide its fullest care early on. Its efforts to share in that pain and resolve it quickly were inadequate. [. . .] I offer my profound apologies to everyone who suffered.”

It was the first personal letter Hwang Sang-ki had received from Samsung in the 13 years since Yu-mi passed away on Mar. 6, 2007. Identical letters were also sent to other victims associated with Banollim.

To be sure, the letter was not the first apology by Samsung. In May 2014, then-Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun (the semiconductor product division director) bowed his head to deliver a first official apology.

“Employees who have worked at our factory have been fighting leukemia and other intractable diseases, and some of them have passed away,” he said at the time. “This is sad and heartbreaking, and I apologize for the failure to resolve this issue as it should have been resolved.”

But Banollim declined to accept his apology on the grounds that it “did not include any acknowledgement of a link between the semiconductor [process] and leukemia.” Thus began a long-term sit-in demonstration by Banollim in front of the Samsung Electronics offices in Seoul’s Seocho neighborhood.

The long battle finally came to an end on Nov. 23, 2018, when the two sides reached a deal and signed an implementation agreement to accept the meditation ruling of an arbitration committee, which would include an official apology. A statement of apology by Samsung Electronics was also issued at the committee’s recommendation. It included a new phrase stating that Samsung Electronics had “failed to fully and completely manage risks associated with health hazards at its semiconductor and LCD factories in the past.” Acknowledging only partial management responsibility but not a causal link with the leukemia cases, it was a hard-won compromise. The acceptance of the mediation plan also marked the end of the demonstrations, which had continued for 1,023 days since beginning on Oct. 7, 2015.

Samsung sent letters according to mediation agreement

Explaining why the individual apologies had been sent to victims 17 months after the official apology, Samsung Electronics said, “According to the mediation agreement, individual apologies were to be sent to victims within two weeks of the completion of compensation to Banollim-linked victims.”

“The individual apologies were sent after the recent conclusion of compensation to them,” it explained.

While the mediation agreement did not stipulate the content of the individual apologies, the content was no different from what had come before -- dashing the remaining hopes of Hwang Sang-ki, who in 2018 had said that the deal was “not enough” but agreed to accept it as “a promise from Samsung Electronics.”

“It’s a vague sort of apology,” he said in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh on Apr. 23. “It’s just baffling, without anything in it to make it clear whether it’s an apology or not from the recipient’s perspective.”

“They claim it’s an ‘apology,’ but there’s nothing concrete in it about what the harmful agent was, what the causal relationship is between that agent and the worker deaths, or what kind of punishments there are for those who were lax in the industrial safety management responsibilities,” he continued, criticizing the letter for its lack of “genuineness.”

The mailing of individual apologies marks the end of the compensation and apology procedures according to the mediation agreement -- but the apologies to date have left the victims’ family members unmoved.

Apr. 21, the date on which Samsung’s letter of apology to Hwang arrived, would have been his daughter Yu-mi’s 35th birthday.