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Lee, along with four other Samsung executives, was accused of offering more than 7bn won in bribes to former South Korean president Park Geun-hye and her associate, Choi Soon-sil.

Lee himself was sentenced to five years in prison for bribing the then-South Korean president Park Geun-Hye and her secret confidante, and spent nearly a year in custody after first being detained in February 2017.

Monday's ruling marked a mitigated sentence compared to a lower court ruling on August 25th of previous year.

He was cleared of the more serious charges of hiding assets overseas, a charge that carries a minimum five-year sentence, and the court found Samsung had sent the money overseas as kickbacks, not for the goal of concealing it. The decision ruled in the Seoul High Court raises many questions and concerns regarding political and corporation power.

Those who had hoped the relatively harsh sentence spelled the end of chaebol leaders committing crimes knowing the worst they could expect is a relative slap on the wrist, though, will be disappointed to hear that Lee is now a free man. Samsung accounts for a considerable part of the South Korean economy. This was a move that was said would help his leadership succession.

Lee, who is 49, maintained his innocence during a five-month-long trial a year ago that centered around accusations Samsung had paid or promised to pay $38 million in bribes to the president's confidante in return for favorable treatment from regulators.

- Shin Dong-bin, Lotte Group Chairman, received a suspended 20-month prison term in December on charges of embezzlement and breach of fiduciary duty.

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"The result doesn't directly affect rank-and-file employees, but it will matter more to the executives", said an assistant manager-level employee at Samsung.

Emerging from Seoul Detention Centre, Lee said his time in jail had been useful.

Experts said Monday's decision to set him free was the latest example of South Korea's powerful tycoons getting lenient treatment in the country's courts.

Prosecutors had sought a 12-year jail term for Lee.

Liberal politician Moon Jae-in was elected the new president in May.

"Again, I am very sorry for being unable to put my best face forward with all of you", Lee told waiting reporters. "If we were to succeed in reforming the running of the chaebols and also increasing transparency, I believe this will not only help the economic power of Korea but also help to make the chaebols themselves more competitive".