Has Hanjin’s ship sailed?

Hanjin HQ in Seoul

The Hanjin Group is one of South Korea’s largest family-owned conglomerates – or, as they say in Seoul, chaebols. It owns Korean Air and Jin Air, and has major holdings in shipping and industry. And like the other chaebols, it is at once admired for its wealth and power, notorious for its endemic corruption and shady political ties, and resented for the ease with which it can crush competition by upstart entrepreneurs as well as for its executives’ ability to routinely escape punishment for even the most egregious acts of embezzlement, money laundering, and bribery.

As we reported last week, a newly hatched activist fund called Korea Corporate Governance Improvement (KCGI) – which is now Hanjin’s second largest shareholder – is pushing for reforms of the sort that one South Korean government after another has promised for decades and that the current president, Moon Jae-in – who, upon taking office in 2017, insisted would be a central objective of his administration – has utterly failed to carry out.

Moon Jae-in

Now, as we noted, KCGI is seeking to get Hanjin to sell off its hotel chain, which includes major hostelries in Los Angeles and Hawaii, and – in a truly radical move – to force the firm to ditch the traditional practice that is at the heart of chaebol culture: namely, the passing on of top leadership positions from one generation of the company’s founding family to the next. Instead, KCGI wants Hanjin to agree to have its leaders appointed by an independent committee.

We’re still waiting to see how that drama works itself out. Meanwhile, a new subplot has developed – one that underscores the fact that the once seemingly invincible chaebols have entered a new era of vulnerability. At this point it should be noted that in 2016, a division of Hanjin, Hanjin Shipping, declared bankruptcy and was liquidated. It had been the world’s seventh largest container shipping line. The loss of Hanjin Shipping was a major blow to Hanjin, to the chaebols, and to the South Korean economy.

Hanjin’s shipyard at Subic Bay

Now Hanjin is facing another significant loss, also involving shipping. Hanjin Philippines is a division of the chaebol that runs a shipyard at Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base. It is the biggest shipyard in the Philippines, and one of the biggest in the world, and has been a cornerstone of the Philippines’s ambition to become a top-flight shipbuilding nation.

Hanjin Philippines, however, has not been doing well. In January, the division, which has massive assets but is cash-poor, declared bankruptcy, defaulting on $400 million in bank loans – the largest such bankruptcy in the history of the Philippines and an event that was described as being, for the world’s shipping sector, equivalent to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It filed for “court-assisted rehabilitation,” meaning that it wanted the courts to help it arrange debt payment with five banks in that country that had lent it a total of $412 million.

An image from the glory days of Hanjin Shipping

This month, it was reported that Hanjin Philippines might soon have to let go of thousands of employees, and that several other international corporations, most of them based in Europe but one based in North America, might be willing to help Hanjin out by snapping them up. Another report indicated that “at least two major Chinese shipbuilders” were looking into a much more sweeping move – namely, taking over Hanjin’s entire operation in the Philippines.

This would be a drastic development indeed. For one thing, a Chinese purchase of Hanjin Philippines would also contribute to ongoing expansion of the PRC’s presence in East Asia, and would be troubling news for the U.S. and all of its allies in that region. In its own small way, it could cause a shift in the worldwide balance of power.

Part of Korean Air’s fleet

In South Korea, however, such a purchase would have an even stronger impact. Like the disappearance of Hanjin Shipping, it would not only mark yet another downturn for the Hanjin Group. It would also be a blow to South Korean national pride, which rested for decades upon the bedrock of its powerhouse economy. Not least, it would further tarnish, in the eyes of South Koreans at both the top and bottom levels of society, the already fading luster of the chaebol model. So it is that the closing or sale of a shipyard in the Philippines may have a very real impact on the volatile economic developments in the Republic of South Korea.

Reza Aslan, phony & hater

Reza Aslan

Born in 1972 in Iran, Reza Aslan was brought by his parents to the U.S. seven years later when they fled the Khomeini revolution. He grew up in the Bay Area, where as a teenager he converted from Islam to Christianity and then converted back. He earned degrees in theology, writing, and sociology, and over the past decade or so has become a leading voice on religion, a subject he has discussed frequently on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks and on which he tries to sound very modern.

No religion, he argues, is objectively true; on the contrary, each is a set of “symbols and metaphors” that represent one’s sense of connection to the divine and eternal and ineffable. He admits to identifying as a Muslim, but is at pains to insist that this is more a matter of cultural or aesthetic affinity than of thinking that Islam is “truer” than Christianity, Hinduism, or any other faith. Indeed he has said, in effect, that all religions are ultimately the same and that “we are all God.”

He presents himself as a man of high moral character with a deep interest in the divine; as a clear-eyed observer of and expert in religions; and as someone who respects all belief systems and is eager to focus on their similarities and not emphasize their differences. In practice, however, he consistently puts his finger on the scale for Islam. In his 2005 book No God But God, he depicts Islam as inherently benign, blaming pretty much everything that’s negative about it on Western imperialism. In another book published four years later, he strives to distance Islamic terrorism from Islam itself, to draw at least something of a moral equivalence between jihadist murder and the American “war on terrorism,” and to distinguish sharply between jihadism and Islamism. Indeed he actually defends the latter, making the ridiculous claim that the answer to “extremist Islamism” is “moderate Islamism.” Nearly two decades after 9/11, the absurdity of all this should be obvious to any halfway intelligent individual in the Western world. But instead Aslan’s fanciful, friendly picture of Islam has won plaudits across the U.S.A. and elsewhere.

Aslan hasn’t been satisfied with merely whitewashing Islam. In his 2013 book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he sought to alter established views of Christianity; two years later, he produced and hosted a CNN series, Believer, in which he purportedly sought to take viewers on tours of Christian, Jewish, and Hindu doctrine and practice, at both their ugliest and most beautiful. As Alexander Waugh noted in the Spectator,

Each episode featured the sensational and disgusting practices of fringe groups connected to Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, which, unsurprisingly, offended mainstream Hindus, Christians and Jews who did not care to be associated in the public mind with their pee-drinking, brain-eating, death-worshipping sub-sects. No discreditable customs of any Muslim sub-sect were shown. Since Aslan has elsewhere gone out of his way to dismiss Islamic terrorism as less of a problem than ‘faulty furniture’; has described jihadism as a mere ‘pop culture’; and has denied any link between the Islamic religion and female genital mutilation, he soon found (no doubt to his delight) that he had sharply divided America’s liberal progressive movement.

Waugh went on:

Aslan explained that the purpose of his Believer series was to reveal to the world how everyone is ‘the same’. His detractors interpreted this to mean that Christians, Jews and Hindus should stop complaining about the unappealing practices of Muslims because there are people doing equally appalling things in the name of their religions too.

Indeed, many of Aslan’s erstwhile fans began to feel that he was at once a shameless apologist for Islam and an eager denigrator of other religions. Even as he slickly denied the established connections between Islam itself and certain abominable practices that are considered matters of faith by its adherents, he exaggerated out of all proportion the prevalence of certain unpleasant aspects of other faiths.

What’s more, professional historians of religion began to look more closely at his academic record and noticed that his claims to be a credentialed historian, a professor of religion, and a Ph.D. in the history of religion were all bogus.

For all his efforts to represent himself as a man of faith, moreover, Aslan has certainly said things about various public figures that are, shall we say, rather deficient in what we in the West used to quaintly call Christian charity. After the 2017 terrorist attack on London Bridge, Aslan wrote a tweet in which he condemned not the terrorists but President Trump, whom he called “a piece of shit” for having refused to mince words about the danger of Islamic terror. (That tweet lost him his CNN series.)

That’s not all. Aslan has maintained, risibly, that women enjoy equal rights in Muslim countries where that is quite plainly not the case. Aslan has not only misrepresented the extent of female genital mutilation but also savaged the comedian Bill Maher when he condemned that practice and dared to acknowledge its connection to Islam. After he appeared on Good Morning America, his interviewer posted online a breathless summary of what she had “learned” from him about Islam:

Did you know Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet and a messiah? I didn’t. Did you know Muslims actually rank Jesus higher than the Prophet Muhammad? Again, I didn’t.

If we’ve decided to give a bit of critical attention to Aslan now, it’s because of his latest headline-making act. Last month, when that group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were harassed outside the Lincoln Memorial by a group of fanatically racist “black Israelites” and by a drum-banging Native American “elder,” the boys were demonized throughout the mainstream media, even though, as it turned out, they were the victims in that encounter, not the bad guys. Aslan was one of those celebrities who piled on, and he did so in a particularly nasty way, retweeting a picture of the most prominent of the Kentucky boys, Nick Sandmann, and writing: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”

It was one of those comments that give the whole game away. After years of promoting himself as a sober, sincere, and thoughtful student of religion, and as a builder of bridges between different faiths and cultures, and as someone who is, therefore, by definition, a decent human being and a man of peace, Aslan, with this one tweet, shattered that image forever. Sandmann is sixteen years old, a boy from Kentucky who did nothing wrong and who, in a TV interview after the Lincoln Memorial episode, acquitted himself with quiet dignity and intelligence – qualities missing entirely from Aslan’s tweet. Reza Aslan wanted to punch a teenage boy, someone’s child, presumably because Aslan didn’t like what he thought he saw in the look on the boy’s face. And this is supposed to be one of America’s leading teachers of religion? No, thank you.

Heroes at Hanjin?

Kim Sang-jo, the “chaebol sniper”

This would all make an interesting movie – full of colorful characters, intense conflict, mounting tension, and stunning reversals – except for the fact that it’s all just too sprawling a story, with too many villains and, so far, no hero.

What are we talking about here? We’re talking about the large-scale corruption at the uppermost levels of the South Korean government and business sector that, in the last couple of years, has made for some high drama, complete with palace intrigue, smoking guns, and courtroom clashes. What is required here is a screenwriter who can tame this tale and foreground a single arresting plot line.

Park Geun-hye

But what to foreground? OK, take a deep breath, here goes: in the brief period since 2017, we’ve seen the removal from office – and long-term imprisonment – of South Korea’s first female president (Park Geun-hye) after she was caught doing underhanded deals, through her shady best friend (Choi Soon-sil), with top business leaders – who, as usual, went scot-free – and her replacement by a self-styled “reform” president (Moon Jae-in), who, making bold promises to rein in the power and corruption of the increasingly unpopular chaebols – those massive, family-run conglomerates that dominate that nation’s economy and that operate with impunity – installed an antitrust czar (Kim Sang-jo), widely styled the “chaebol sniper,” who started off his three-year term with a lot of tough rhetoric about cutting Samsung, Hyundai, and other chaebols down to size, only to tone down his language in recent months and talk, instead, in pathetically humble language, about requesting modest alterations in the chaebols’ organizational charts, even as the president himself began getting all chummy with the chaebol leaders, apparently having decided that he needed them on his side if he wanted to kick his country’s weak economy back into high gear.

Moon Jae-in

Phew. So does that mean we’re back at square one? Not exactly. Because, as we’ve mentioned before, while President Moon and his “sniper” seem to have dwindled into impotence and irrelevance, the cause has been taken up by some of the people who actually own sizable chunks of the chaebols but who, in keeping with the curious (indeed, unique) traditions of the chaebols, have been systematically denied any meaningful input into the governance of the conglomerates. The bizarre fact, which remains unchanged, is that in most cases, the families that founded the chaebols and that still hold the key leadership positions in them don’t own a majority or even a plurality of shares in those firms. Indeed, some of the chaebol royal families would, under ordinary Western circumstances, be considered negligible minority stockholders.

Choi Soon-sil

No surprise, then, that as the South Korean economy falters and the chaebols, immense though they are, look more and more as if their best years are behind them, investors – most of them foreigners, many of them Americans – who have plunged large sums of money into the chaebols are increasingly frustrated at their own lack of power to initiate significant changes. The unfortunate truth is that while the men who founded the chaebols were business wizards, their children and grandchildren, who now sit behind the big desks in the corner offices, don’t necessarily have what it takes to run some of the world’s largest corporations. Meanwhile, many of those investors have proven track records at turning failing businesses around – at spinning off or closing down certain subsidiaries, at recognizing the need to hire or fire certain executives, and at successfully restructuring extraordinarily diversified conglomerates to maximize efficiency and profits.

Cho Yang-ho

So it is that, as Kim Jaewon of Nikkei reported on January 21, Korea Corporate Governance Improvement (KCGI), a newly founded South Korean activist fund that is now the second largest shareholder in the Hanjin Group (whose most famous holding is Korean Air), is pushing it to sell its hotel chain, which includes the Wilshire Grand Hotel in L.A. and the Waikiki Resort Hotel in Hawaii, and to form an independent committee that would select Hanjin’s CEO and other top leaders. Now that would be real reform – a change in policy that would actually make it possible to remove from office the scarifyingly rich and corrupt members of one of the chaebol royal families – in this case, the notorious Cho clan, which owns 29% of Hanjin – and replace them with new, competent, and even (could it be?) clean outsiders.

Cho Hyun-min

Such a transformation would mean the departure of company chairman Cho Yang-ho, who last year was indicted on embezzlement charges; of his wife, who has been probed for smuggling; of his daughter Cho Hyun-min, who was accused of assaulting an ad-agency executive; and of another daughter, Cho Hyun Ah, whose outrage at a flight attendant who served her macadamias in a bag and not on a plate led to a scandal and a legal mess that made headlines worldwide. In short, it’s a family that Hanjin, and South Korea generally, would be much better off without.

Bottom line: the protagonists in this drama may turn out, in the end, to be these so-called activist investors. Screenwriters, stay tuned.

Angela Davis, Commie stooge

Davis in 2016 with Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Sackler

As we saw on Thursday, Angela Davis, a Black Panther member, fan of the Soviet Union, and two-time Communist Party candidate for President of the U.S. who was acquitted in 1972 of a death-penalty crime of which she was clearly guilty, is now, in the eyes of many on the left, an éminence grise. From time to time she is handed major accolades; three years ago, presenting her with an award intended for women of supreme accomplishment, Elizabeth Sackler, chairman of the Brooklyn Museum, called her “the embodiment of all we hold dear.”

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Next month she was supposed to receive yet another award, this one from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is based in her native city of Birmingham, Alabama. By giving her the Fred Shuttleworth Human Rights Award, the institute intended to recognize Davis for her support of the Palestinian people. But in the first week of January, the institute’s board announced that it had changed its collective mind. This decision was prominently reported in the New York Times, in which reporter Niraj Chokshi, in his opening paragraph, described Davis as “the activist and scholar” and conveyed the news that Davis herself was “stunned.”

Niraj Chokshi

Why did the folks in Birmingham decide not to give Angela Davis an award? Answer: because she supports a boycott of Israel. The question, of course, really should be why they decided to give her an award in the first place. Given what else is on her résumé, her hatred for Israel and Jews is just one more moral outrage among many. Another question is how the Birmingham group could have been so clueless about Davis’s attitude toward Jews and Israel; a quick Google search would have made it clear that she’s an anti-Semite of the first water. Apparently the answer is that the folks in Birmingham weren’t clueless about her Jew-hatred: they didn’t care about it until local Jews, including the people who run the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, started making a fuss about the planned award.

Angela Davis today

In any event, what was interesting about the Times article was not the tidings about the prize itself but Chokshi’s take on it. For one thing, he identified Davis as a sometime “global hero of the left who has since earned renown for her scholarship.” Later in his article, Chokshi repeated this ridiculous claim: “she has been recognized for her scholarship and activism around feminism and against mass incarceration.” Scholarship? What scholarship? This woman has never been anything but a race hustler, ideological scold, and brazen self-promoter.

Accepting the Lenin Prize in Moscow

In a statement on Facebook, Angela described the revocation of the award as “not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.” It’s pretty rich for this woman – who should have been executed half a century ago or at least have spent the last half century behind bars – to talk about “justice.”

But Chokshi seemed blissfully ignorant of the facts of Davis’s history. Either that, or he chose not to share those facts with Times readers. Instead he presented the standard whitewash of the story of Davis’s trial, which depicts her as an innocent bystander who was wrongly charged:

Professor Davis became a global progressive leader nearly half a century ago. At the time, she was agitating on behalf of three California inmates accused of murdering a white prison guard when guns she had purchased were used in an attack that was aimed at freeing the inmates but left four people dead, including the assailant.

She was not present during the attack and witnesses testified that the guns were purchased for defense, but Professor Davis nonetheless spent 16 months in jail before an all-white jury acquitted her of all charges. In the interim, “Free Angela” had become a rallying cry.

Note the slick twist here: instead of sharing the facts about Davis’s masterminding of the conspiracy to free her husband – which would have led at least some readers to wonder why she was acquitted and how Davis could possibly be considered a human-rights icon – Chokshi deep-sixed Davis’s central role in the whole business, thereby prodding readers to be outraged that poor Angela had to spend sixteen months in jail and to accept the verdict as legit because the jury was “all-white.”

Chokshi also put a neat spin on Davis’s take on Israel and the Palestinians: at a time, she wrote, when “polls of young people” in the U.S. “show support growing for the Palestinian cause” and when state laws restricting contractors from boycotting Israel “are being challenged as violations of First Amendment rights” (facts that have no place in Chokshi’s article except by way of suggesting that Davis is on the right side of this issue), Davis has “joined prominent black celebrities and thinkers in comparing the struggles of Palestinians to those of African-Americans.”

Cathy Young

What Chokshi neglected to mention is that, as Cathy Young noted in a January 9 piece for the Forward, Davis’s “stance toward Israel…includes the embrace of convicted terrorists Rasmea Odeh and Marwan Barghouti.” Chokshi also ignored Davis’s slavish, see-no-evil defense of the USSR and Cuba, including, as Young pointed out, her consistent refusal to stand up for gays, women, and political prisoners in Communist countries. No, Angela Davis is the furthest thing possible from a human-rights heroine: she is a fervent lifelong enthusiast for totalitarianism, a woman whom lovers of freedom and equality should regard with nothing but contempt.