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.
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.
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.
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.
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.