A chaebol tale

Recently, we’ve been spending a lot of time here covering the chaebols, those economy-driving but corruption-ridden conglomerates that pulled South Korea out of the Third World but are now keeping its economy from shifting into even higher gear. Regular readers of this site will know that the current government in Seoul claims to be making serious efforts to reform the chaebols – but that so far there has been more big talk on this front than productive action.

Daddy Chung

As part of our attempt to educate our readers about this topic, we thought it might be advisable to take a look at some highlights of chaebol history. Today we’ll be harkening back to 2006, when Chung Mong Koo, the head of Hyundai Motor, the second largest chaebol in South Korea and (at the time) the seventh-largest carmaker in the world, and son of the man who had founded it in 1947, was arrested on charges of embezzlement and other forms of corruption.

The sum he had purportedly stolen from Hyundai was no less than 100 billion won, or $106 million. He was also accused of breach of trust for supposedly having incurred over 300 billion won, or $318 billion, in damages to the conglomerate. Moreover, government investigators had apparently uncovered evidence of “slush funds, compliant corporate boards and questionable arrangements involving affiliates that were set up to help Mr. Chung turn over the conglomerate to his son, Chung Eui Sun.”

Sonny Chung

Chung was the most powerful businessman in the country to have been arrested in a long time, and if found guilty of all charges he faced a possible life sentence. Except, of course, that he didn’t really face any such thing. The story of Chung’s brush with the law – he was sixty-eight at the time – ended up falling into the usual South Korean pattern, which can be represented by the formula A-I-R. A: arrest. I: imprisonment. R: release. Sometimes there’s a trial, and sometimes even a sentencing; sometimes these guys are pardoned before a trial can even be arranged or before a sentence can be handed down.

Chung had a trial. In February 2007, he was sentenced to three years in jail. (By this time, interestingly enough, Hyundai was being identified as the world’s sixth-largest carmaker.) The prison term came as a surprise: prosecutors had asked for six months, and it had been expected that Chung would get a suspended sentence. Certainly Chung seemed to expect that. In court, he “appeared shaken after the verdict.” He was, however, allowed to go home, prepared his appeal, and keep running Hyundai.

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

Sure enough, as it happened, Chung stayed home. In September 2007, a three-judge panel of the Seoul High Court suspended Chung’s three-year sentence. The court’s explanation for this suspension was surprisingly frank. Presiding Judge Lee Jae-hong said that he had struggled with the decision, and had “sought the views of various people, including other judges, prosecutors, lawyers, journalists and ‘even taxi drivers and restaurant employees.’” In the end, he claimed, national interest had won the day: Chung was simply too important to South Korea’s economy not to have to go to jail. “I am also a citizen of the Republic of Korea,” he told the courtroom. “I was unwilling to engage in a gamble that would put the nation’s economy at risk.”

In a way, it was a refreshing admission. There was not the slightest pretense that the South Korean judiciary offers anything resembling equal justice for the rich and poor. No, Lee’s statement amounted to a candid acknowledgment that in South Korea, the chaebols do indeed rule.

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