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Reforming chaebols? Or sucking up to Kim?

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

When it was announced last year, with big fanfare, that South Korea had finally gotten serious about tackling the outsized power of the chaebols, we were instantly cynical. This was, after all, hardly the first time that the government in Seoul had vowed to put Samsung, Hyundai, and the other family-run conglomerates in their place. But it never happened. Instead, the same old pattern continued: the chaebols kept throwing their weight around, kept paying huge bribes to public officials in exchange for laws, permits, and exemptions favorable to their business activities, and using their near-monopolistic market positions to smother fledgling firms in their cradles. Every now and then the head of a chaebol would get put on trial for corruption, and inevitably the case would either go away or the boss man, after being found guilty, would be given a get-out-of-jail-free card.


The latest case in point was that of Jay Y. Lee (Lee Jae-yong), vice chairman and de facto head of Samsung, who was sentenced to five years in prison last year only to be freed this year. On September 18, President Moon Jae-in, who not so long ago had essentially declared zero tolerance for chaebol corruption, hopped on a place with Lee and other chaebol honchos and flew with them to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of doing business with the Hermit Kingdom, perhaps even building factories in that totalitarian land. Even as their exploratory talks with Kim Jong-un were underway, Moon’s corruption czar, Kim Sang-jo, head of the Fair Trade Commission, was making his informal title of “chaebol sniper” look pathetic.

“With exports of semiconductors one of the few bright spots in an economy that’s showing signs of strain,” noted Livemint, the Indian business news website, on the day Lee & co. jetted northwards, South Korea’s “reliance on its most profitable company is deepening and thus reducing regulatory pressure on Samsung.” Chung Sun-sup, a corporate analyst, confirmed that the South Korean government “needs Samsung now.” Bruce Lee, CEO of Zebra Investment Management, agreed that the nation’s faltering economy “means a halt in chaebol reforms.” And Kwon Young-june, an expert in corporate governance at Kyung Hee University, concurred. “Reforms are dying on the vine,” he said. “The government will find itself more and more in need of conglomerates as long as it is fixated on quick results rather than long-term reforms.”

Indeed, by escorting the chaebol kingpins to Pyongyang, Moon was doing the very opposite of what he had promised: rather than limiting the power of the chaebols, he was doing his best to expand their power. What kind of head of state lowers himself to the role of chaperon, escort, cicerone, sherpa? With this one move, Moon provided the whole world with a vivid illustration of where the power really resides in South Korea. Did he serve them coffee on the plane, too?

But that wasn’t all. Far from curbing chaebol criminality, Moon was taking actions that seemed likely to invite criminality. North Korea, after all, is subject to strict international sanctions that would almost certainly be violated by any significant business arrangement with the chaebols. Lee Seok-ki, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, told the Korea Joongang Daily that “if we only look at the cost side, North Korea has more labor cost effectiveness than any other country on the planet – even Vietnam and China.” Well, yes – making use of slave labor by people who are forced to live on starvation diets tends to bring down wages. Surely, to any decent observer, the very idea of the filthy-rich chaebols maximizing their profits by employing the brutalized subjects of the Kim dynasty is as reprehensible a business proposition as one could imagine – and is also, of course, as far as possible from any concept of reform.

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