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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.

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