What are the chaebols?

Corruption takes a variety of forms. In Brazil, as we’ve seen, innumerable politicians have grown rich by ripping off the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. In neighboring Argentina, a gang of Kirchner cronies diverted billions from infrastructure projects into private offshore accounts. In Gabon, President Bongo plays it simple: he treats the national treasury as his own piggy bank and buys himself mansions, yachts, limos, and planes while the average Gabonese citizen scrapes by on $12 a day.

seoul
Seoul

Then there’s Korea. Not Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom, which is undoubtedly the most totalitarian corner of the planet. No, today we’re talking about South Korea.

“South Korea?” you ask. “Benign, prosperous, democratic, free-market South Korea, America’s steadfast ally and Ground Zero for the East Asian economic miracle? How corrupt can South Korea be?

samsung-headquarters
Samsung headquarters

This corrupt. In South Korea, as it happens, the power structure consists of two intimately interlocking parts: on the one hand, the president and other duly elected government leaders; on the other hand, a small number of huge family-run conglomerates that are uniquely South Korean in their origins, configuration, and societal significance, that have not been elected to anything by anybody, and that are, in effect, themselves the corporate equivalent of dictatorships.

These companies – among them such world-famous enterprises as Samsung, Hyundai, and LP – are known as chaebols, from the Korean words for wealth (chae) and clan (bol). They function like no other companies in the world.

lee_kun_hee2
Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee was Fortune Korea’s CEO of the Decade

In English-speaking countries,” explains a Seoul professor of public administration, “there really are no business groups, but singular companies that own [their] subsidiaries 100 percent. In Europe, conglomerates are never as big as the chaebols and ownership and management [are] usually strictly divided.” A chaebol, by contrast, consists of “multiple companies with robust internal transactions, all controlled by a single, near all-powerful chairman that act[s] as both manager and the de facto owner of the entire enterprise.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the chaebols made South Korea. Over the last half century, they led the way in turning a poor agricultural backwater into an international technology center and economic powerhouse. In the process, they assumed a role in South Korean society that can be hard to explain to outsiders. The members of the families that run the chaebols are national celebrities; the companies themselves are mighty, majestic, nearly mythical colossi, looming above the everyday world of ordinary citizens in such a way that their very names almost carry a touch of magic.

sk-group-headquarters
SK Group headquarters

Look at it this way: elected officials are mere mortals who come and go; the chaebol clans, like so many royal families, stay on forever, never yielding power or stepping down from Olympus.

As Iain Marlow wrote last year in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “all South Korean mothers dream of their children working at chaebol companies.” And yet even those mothers realize that the chaebols – which a generation ago were universally revered for having effected South Korea’s miraculous transformation – now pose a threat to their country’s continued growth, to its people’s economic and political freedom, and to its attempts to achieve full legitimacy and recognition on the world stage.

They realize, indeed, that these conglomerates that liberated them from poverty now – in a very real sense – are enshackling them.

How so? We’ll get around to the fascinating details tomorrow.

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