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.

If you liked Arafat, you’ll love Campa-Najjar

Ammar Campa-Najjar

On Thursday we met Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former staffer in the Obama White House who, in 2016, wrote a sappy Washington Post op-ed in which he professed his adoration for America – despite what he presented as the American military’s brutal mistreatment of his family in the Middle East. In his op-ed, he noted that his father had been a colleague of Yasser Arafat’s in the Palestinian government. He also mentioned his grandfather, whom he presented in sentimental fashion as having been “gunned down” in full view of his son, Campa-Najjar’s father, when the son was only 11 years old. Significantly, however, Campa-Najjar did not mention his grandfather’s name or describe the circumstances under which he was “gunned down.”

Grandpa

Campa-Najjar is now running for Congress from a southern California district. After he announced his candidacy, enterprising reporters dug up some of the details of his family background that didn’t make it into his Post op-ed. As it happens, Campa-Najjar’s paternal grandfather was none other than Muhammed Youssef al-Najjar (aka Abu Youssef), the head of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, which kidnapped, tortured, and murdered eleven Israelis and one West German at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In addition to this, Yousef was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was a founder of Fatah (of which Black September was a covert subsidiary) and a leader of its military arm, Al-‘Asifah. He sat on the executive committee of the PLO and belonged to the Palestinian National Congress.

A Black September terrorist during the Munich Olympics massacre

Of course, Campa-Najjar has known all his life who his grandfather was. He chose to keep it a secret, even as he tried to use his grandfather’s killing to win sympathy for himself. And what did he do when the news about his grandfather’s identity became public? He issued a perfectly bizarre statement. “For the sake of the victims,” he said, “I hoped this tragedy wouldn’t be politicized.” What? The Munich massacre wasn’t a “tragedy.” It was an atrocity – a jihadist atrocity committed in the name of a religion whose Holy Book teaches the hatred of Jews. How, moreover, does revealing the hidden truth about Campa-Najjar’s family history amount to “politiciz[ation]”?

Campa-Najjar went on: “But if these old wounds must be re-opened, then I pray God gives purpose to their unspeakable pain. I pray that purpose is to see peace prioritized by my generation of Palestinians, Israelis and the whole of humanity.” More empty words. Note that Campa-Najjar didn’t express so much as a hint of regret for the coldblooded murders his grandfather committed.

Good ole dad

And what about Campa-Nijjar’s dad, who, as Campa-Nijjar had already admitted in his 2016 op-ed, was a colleague of Arafat’s? What was his full story? That came out, too. In 2013, it turned out, Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) had issued a report about Western funding of PLO schools where children are taught Jew-hatred. A PLO ambassador publicly rejected PMW’s findings. And that ambassador was, yes, Campa-Najjar’s father, Yasser Najjar. Another fact about al-Najjar emerged, too: after his terrorist father was killed, he was adopted by the none other than the king of Morocco – a little detail that puts a dent in Campa-Nijjar’s cozy attempt in the Post to depict his dad as having climbed up out of childhood poverty and oppression to “pursue his dreams” in America.

Well, now the truth has come out. But mainstream media, for the most part, have refused to write about it. Either that, or they’ve asserted that the activities of Campa-Najjar’s father and grandfather have nothing to do with him. But of course they do. Only two years ago, in the Post, he was referring to them with obvious pride. Now he’s trying to distance himself from them. But the key fact here is that he hid the full truth about these men for decades. Like Tariq Ramadan, another slick character who pretends to stand for Western values but who is in fact the grandson of an Islamic terrorist, Campa-Najjar is obviously not to be trusted.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, American patriot?

Ammar Campa-Najjar

After the November 2016 elections, the Washington Post ran an op-ed designed to console Americans who had been traumatized by the triumph of Donald Trump. The author, Ammar Campa-Najjar, began his piece by explaining that he was a “Hispanic-Arab-American” and arguing that the prospect of Trump in the White House represented “not only a challenging time for diversity in America but also an empowering one.” He went on to celebrate America as a country where “our individual differences don’t outweigh our common humanity,” and as proof of this statement cited his own life story, which he summed up as follows: “Only in America can the son of a Hispanic woman from the barrio and an Arab man from an occupied territory have the freedom to reimagine his life and pursue his dreams.”

Yasser Arafat: family crony

If you’re curious about his reference to “occupied territory,” Campa-Najjar went on to provide details: his father, Yasser Najjar, saw “both his parents gunned down right in front of him when he was only 11 years old.” Najjar then moved to America, married a Chicana woman, and fathered Campa-Najjar. He then took his family back “to the Middle East…so that he could help Yasser Arafat lead a secular unity government.” Hence Campa-Najjar “spent my early years with my family under siege by American-made helicopters and F-16s that leveled entire buildings on the block where we lived.” But he survived, ending up back in America, where he ended up working in the Obama White House. This, he says, “is nothing short of an American miracle.”

Barack Obama: former boss

Campa-Najjar’s backstory raises more questions than it answers. Exactly why were his grandparents “gunned down”? What’s the deal with his father’s ties to Arafat, whose apparently not inconsiderable role in the family’s story Campa-Najjar glides past quickly, innocuously representing that vile terrorist, anti-Semite, Soviet tool, and cynical profiteer as the head of a “secular unity government.” Arafat is the main reason why the Palestinian territories are now a failed culture, their people so inculcated with hate and lies that there seems to be little if any possibility of them ever being able to enjoy anything resembling peace, prosperity, and true civil society. How, one wondered, did somebody with family ties to the man who created this nightmare of a non-state ever get a coveted job in the Obama White House? 

A screenshot of the faked al-Durrah video

Besides, the more one looked at Campa-Nijjar’s Post article, the more one found oneself asking: What kind of a cockeyed tribute to America is this, anyway? Campa-Najjar, and the Post, offered his article up as a tribute to America. But just beneath the surface was something very different. For example, Campa-Nijjar mentioned that while he was living in the Middle East, he “watched a boy my age, Muhammad al-Durrah, get shot and killed while hiding behind a barrel.” The al-Durrah case, in case you missed it or forgot about it, was an infamous fabrication – a fake child-killing, supposedly committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, that was invented out of whole cloth by Palestinian “news” cameramen and their allies with the sole purpose of defaming the IDF. Why was Campa-Najjar still trying to sell this lie as fact?

Duncan Hunter: the Republican incumbent and opponent in the 50th district election

There’s more. In his Post op-ed, Campa-Najjar mentioned 9/11 –but he brought it up  for one reason and one reason alone: so that he could let us know that he wasn’t able to attend his “Islamic school” in the U.S. that week because it “was vandalized and declared unsafe to study or pray in.” Is this a lie, too? Where was this school? Who, exactly, declared it unsafe? In any event, the Post piece, all in all, was most curious document indeed: while Campa-Najjar kept fervently asserting that he adores, worships, and cherishes America, the parts of his text between these fervent assertions read as if they would fit a lot better into an article savaging America as the Great Satan.

Flash forward two years. Campa-Najjar is now the Democratic candidate for Congress from California’s 50th district, which includes parts of San Diego County and Riverside County. in the earliest part of his campaign, he sailed along smoothly enough, buoyed by his twofer identity as an Arab and a Latino. But the truth will out. And out it did soon enough. The people of San Diego and Riverside were told the real story about Campa-Najjar and his family. And as we’ll see on Tuesday, it’s quite a story.

What the hell is wrong with the chaebols?

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

We’ve been writing a good deal lately about the chaebols, those immense, influential, and staggeringly corrupt family-run conglomerates (think Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and Daewoo) that have dominated the increasingly dynamic South Korean economy during the more than half century since the Korean War. In recent decades, one government after another has promised to tame them, but, as we’ve seen, their power has yet to be seriously diminished.

We’ve wondered: what is it about Korean culture and the Korean sensibility that made the chaebols possible in the first place? How have the same crooked families – who over the years have been caught giving and taking massive bribes and embezzling fortunes from their firms – been able to maintain absolute control of them from generation to generation?

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

After all, in most cases, these families don’t even own anywhere near a majority of company stock. The clan that runs Samsung, for example, holds just over one percent of total shares in that firm; the family that holds the reins at Hyundai owns about one-thirtieth of it. Indeed, on average, the chaebol royal families own only about three percent of the conglomerates that they run with iron fists.

But that doesn’t matter. As South Korean observers have pointed out, there’s something in the Korean mentality, with its fixation on family, that makes it well-nigh impossible for most citizens to accept the idea that the shareholders in a firm are its actual owners; instead, they reflexively view the chaebol dynasties, however little stock in their own companies they may have in their portfolios, as the real owners.

LG headquarters, Seoul

Yes, the passing down of company management from one generation of a family to the next is a worldwide phenomenon. But family is an even bigger thing in South Korea than elsewhere. There are, as it happens, ancient religious roots – Confucian roots – to this way of thinking. It’s no exaggeration, in other words, to say that in Korea, the idea of family is swathed in a kind of reverence. Especially in a time of rapid transformation in social and cultural structures, family continuity is widely seen as providing needed continuity and even giving those structures a kind of legitimacy that they otherwise would lack. From one perspective, of course, this may be an admirable way of thinking. From another, however, it is a sensibility that can create all kinds of problems for a large twenty-first-century business operating on the international financial stage.

Daewoo headquarters, Seoul

For the fact is that the curious structure of the chaebols renders shareholders all but powerless. Their investments are at the mercy of top executives who have inherited their positions and who may or may not know what they’re doing in those jobs, which are, frankly, nothing more or less than sinecures. Virtually nothing can dislodge these dynastic figures from their perches – not manifest incompetence, not proven corruption, and not an established pattern of business decisions that are obviously meant to serve their own families’ interests rather than the interests of shareholders, workers, or the firms themselves. Yes, the South Korean government is supposedly pushing reforms. But they’re weak reforms, insufficient reforms, and the degree to which the government is pushing for them is, frankly, pathetic. One thing is clear: if there’s going to be anything close to genuine change at the chaebols, the shareholders need to raise their voices more loudly, assert the power that’s rightfully theirs, and demand that these conglomerates shake off their Confucian roots and fully join the modern world economy. 

Fair is foul

Fair is foul, and foul is fair;

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

– Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1

Christine Fair

Warning: X-rated language, and then some.

Back to Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University who makes a habit of harassing ideological opponents and calling them Nazis. On Tuesday we revisited two incidents from last year that showed her in her characteristic attack mode. Here’s #3: this past January, at Frankfurt International Airport on her way to India, security officers refused to let her take a Speed Stick deoderant onboard because they classified it as a liquid, she argued with them, accused them of sexism, became “increasingly uncooperative,” and ultimately referred to them as “fucking bastards” and “fucking German Nazi police.” Eventually she was arrested for defamation and fined $260.

Brett Kavanaugh

Which brings us to her latest brush with fame. Tweeting about the Senate hearings on Brett Kavanaugh, she described the GOP senators as a “chorus of entitled white men,” identified Kavanaugh as a “serial rapist,” and wrote that they all “deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.”

Abigail Marone

When Abigail Marone of Campus Reform wrote to Fair to ask her to elaborate on the tweet – and especially on the apparent call for violence – Fair replied by accusing her of harassment and, addressing her (for some reason) as “Aunt Lydia,” added:

I will not be silenced. I will continue to Tweet things that make you uncomfortable and I will do this by choice. I will select words and phrases that will make you and your fellow-travelers furious.

My choice of words is intended to make you uncomfortable. Because I—and tens of millions of women in this country—are uncomfortable with the ongoing war on our lives, our bodies, our fundamental freedoms, and our access to social and economic justice. Women—whether we are white, women of color, rich or poor—are potential victims of this war. And some of us have been victimized repeatedly….

And you, Aunt Lydia, are a potential victim of this war as well even though you shill for those persons and institutions who sustain it and seek to perpetuate it. Do you think your potential assailant will care that you enable the patriarchal structures that devalue our lives and the work we do and construct legal structures that privilege the attacker? Do you think complicit women and lousy men will be less likely to slut shame you because you are one of their paid-keyboards? No, Aunt Lydia.

As it happens, Professor Fair posted this e-mail in toto on her personal blog, which is called (we’re not kidding) “Tenacious Hellpussy: A Nasty Woman Posting from the Frontlines of Fuckery.” Let’s just say that the blog fully lives up to its name. To browse through it is to experience the repellent, hateful workings of a deeply disturbed mind. For example, in a recent entry entitled “On the Politics of Language and Women’s Rage and Why My Profanity is Sacred,” Fair dismissed media criticism of her notorious “castrate their corpses” tweet as an attempt “to scare, intimidate, and ultimately shut up those of us who see through conservative lies, ruses, and efforts to disenfranchise women, people of color, LGBTQI, non-Christians and anyone else who destabilizes their infantile Leave It To Beaver fantasy.” Noting that a colleague had suggested she “demur from using naughty words in expressing my rage over this administration’s unending assault upon our lives,” she declared that only obscene words could properly capture her fury over the fact that

[w]e [women] are less likely to be hired, promoted or compensated because of our god-damned tits and snatches. These conservative jackasses want to treat our cunts like a public good, yet we pay tens of thousands of dollars to maintain and sustain our civilization-giving pussies and civilization-nurturing wombs and civilization-feeding breasts.

Yet these motherfuckers have the temerity to deny us health care coverage. They have the audacity to force us to carry children….

And you want me to circumlocute my furor in floridity?

Fuck that.

Oh, one last thing: as of 2018-19, annual undergraduate tuition and fees at Georgetown University come to $54,104.

Georgetown’s not-so-fair lady

Brett Kavanaugh

Everyone in the United States of America, it seemed, had a take on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. One observer’s comment was more memorable than most. Referring to the Republican senators on the Justice Committee who were expressing support for President Trump’s nominee, this observer tweeted: “Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.”

Christine Fair

Who was this observer? None other than Christine Fair, an associate professor of Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

We might say that Professor Fair has gotten her fifteen minutes of fame, except that it turns out this isn’t the first time she’s made headlines. In January of last year, the Washington Post published an op-ed by journalist Asra Q. Nomani entitled “I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.” Nomani explained her vote: for one thing, she couldn’t afford Obamacare; for another, she – a self-identified “liberal Muslim” – had “experienced, firsthand, Islamic extremism in this world,” and thus opposed President Obama’s tendency to “tap dance around the ‘Islam’ in Islamic State.”

Asra Q. Romani

This was too much for Fair, who tweeted that Nomani’s vote for Trump had “helped normalize Nazis in D.C.,” and called her a “clueless dolt,” a “fraud,” a “fame-mongering clown show,” and more. Nomani, in response to this barrage of insults, complained to Georgetown University, where she, too, had once been on the faculty. After Nomani made her complaint, Fair doubled down on the insults, adding a few obscenities and accusing Nomani of trying to strip her of her First Amendment rights. Nomani denied this charge. “I honor the First Amendment, I believe in the First Amendment,” Nomani said. “With all rights come serious responsibilities. Civil discourse is one of those responsibilities, especially for educators. We are models.”

Richard Spencer

That was episode #1. Four months later came #2. Fair was working out at a gym in Washington, D.C., when she noticed Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, exercising in the same room. Walking over to him, she asked if he was Richard Spencer. He said he wasn’t. (He later explained that he had denied his identity in an effort to avoid conflict.) “Of course you are,” she replied, “so not only are you a Nazi – you are a cowardly Nazi.” She added: “I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap….As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover, I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”

She went on in that vein, until Spencer, according to the Washington Post, “asked for a trainer – a black woman – to help get him out of the confrontation.” A fellow gym member also stepped in to help him, managing to earn her own share of Fair’s wrath: “Right now you’re being ignorant,” Fair instructed her, “and you’re actually enabling a real-life Nazi.” Eventually, the gym’s general manager got involved, chiding Fair for creating a “hostile environment,” in response to which Fair accused Spencer of creating a “hostile environment” for women and blacks.

The upshot of the incident? Spencer got his gym membership revoked.

Think what you wish of Richard Spencer. But this isn’t about him. It’s about Fair. He didn’t start that fracas in the gym – she did. And she didn’t just provoke him – she insulted an innocent bystander who, not knowing who either of them was, intervened for a purely admirable reason. It would be one thing for Fair to argue with Spencer at a public debate; but when she told him that his views made his presence in a gym – and even in the city of Washington, D.C. – “unacceptable” to her, it was she, not he, who sounded like a Nazi.

We haven’t gotten around yet to Professor Fair’s tweet about killing and castrating senators. Tune in again on Thursday.

Defending Antifa at Queen’s University

David Menzies

On September 23, David Menzies of Canada’s Rebel Media introduced the world to yet another idiot professor of whose existence it had previously been innocent. Cynthia Levine-Rasky, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, had written a letter to the editor to Toronto’s cooler-than-thou alternative weekly, Now, which was basically a billet doux to Antifa. “Many people,” she wrote, “are critical of the anti-fascist activists who protest white nationalist rallies….But they are taking risks that the rest of us will not.” They “mask up because white nationalists photograph and film them so they can identify them and attack them online and otherwise. Many anti-fascist protestors are young people with a lot to lose, including their jobs, their housing, their health, their future. We need to stop labelling these front-line activists since surely all of us are against white supremacy.”

Cynthia Levine-Rasky

Where to start? With the fact that “white nationalist rallies” of any significant size in North America are a fever dream of the far left, whose savviest members know very well that “white nationalism” is a chimera, even if a good many of the white, upper-middle-class college students and trust-fund malingerers who make up most of Antifa actually seem to believe, on some childlike, unreflecting level, that they are at war with millions of rabid racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, etc. Second, the conduct of Antifa makes it clear that they, and nobody else, are the major fascist phenomenon in North America today. They are not fighting fascists. They are fighting conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, moderates, you name it – anyone who may happen to disagree with their radical lockstep boilerplate. They “mask up” because they do not have the courage of their convictions. If they really were brave, they wouldn’t give a toss about losing their jobs or housing. Their convictions are play convictions. They may think they are valiant fighters against capitalism, but they are sunlight warriors, summertime Spartacuses, playpen rebels, gathering en masse to smash the windows of Starbucks branches at which they may well later turn up, maskless, to order a cafe latte grande.

Clash in Charlottesville, 2017

Of course the argument that North America in 2018 is rife with white supremacism is based largely on a single event – the clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 between motley crews of rightist and leftist activists. Yes, some of the rightists who were there were extremists – some were even neo-Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the leftists, in the same way, were Stalinists, Maoists, anarchists. Neither extreme is attractive. Neither is conducive to individual freedom and intellectual diversity. But one thing is clear. The extreme right in America today is an extremely minimal and marginal phenomenon. The KKK’s heyday is long past. The neo-Nazis are not about to take over the U.S. By contrast, the radical left is thriving. Only Clinton-level political machinations prevented a socialist, Bernie Sanders, from winning the Democratic Party 2016 nomination for president of the United States.

Margaret Sanger

But Levine-Rasky doesn’t buy this. In a recent article, she argued that white supremacists are a clear and present danger, and noted that white supremacism was certainly a real power earlier in the history of the U.S. and Canada. She pointed out, for example, the onetime popularity of eugenics programs, which aggressive promoted birth control as a means of keeping down the reproduction of nonwhites. She’s right to indicate that this sort of thinking was indeed widespread back in the day. What she neatly omits to mention is that eugenics, as preached by Margaret Sanger and others, was an integral part not of conservative political programs but, rather, of the progressive movement that led to the formation of the modern American welfare state. The determination of progressives to make use of modern science to limit the number of black babies was rooted in the very same totalitarian urge to control and restrict that undergirds today’s Antifa movement.

Teddy Roosevelt

Levine-Rasky makes a big deal out of the fact that Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, subscribed to this kind of thinking, but she omits to even admit that leftist heroes Wilson and FDR were far more worried about “polluting” of white America with the blood of other “races” than Teddy Roosevelt was. It should be recalled that Wilson, despite his image as a liberal-minded academic intellectual, was a vicious segregationist, while FDR locked up Japanese-Americans during World War II and refused to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany into the U.S. In American today, the progressive obsession with group identity that made possible Wilson’s and FDR’s ugliest policies still exists not in today’s GOP but in the party of Obama and the Clintons – but you would never know that from Cynthia Levine-Rasky.

One ex-prez down, several chaebol CEOs to go

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

In recent weeks, we’ve been reporting – with a good degree of skepticism – on claims by the South Korean government that it’s engaged in a serious, vigorous, and comprehensive effort to curb the power of the nation’s largest capitalist monopolies. We’re referring, of course, to the chaebols, those massive, family-run conglomerates (including Samsung, Hyundai, and LG) that have dominated the South Korean economy over the last half century and more – so much so, indeed, that they routinely kill potential competitors in the womb and thus (as has been increasingly recognized and resented) stifle economic growth, discourage entrepreneurship, and squelch innovation.

Jay Y. Lee

Our skepticism on this front has been undergirded by such events as the sudden and unexpected release from prison, earlier this year, of Jay Y. Lee (Lee Jae-yong), the vice chairman and de facto head of Samsung (and arguably his country’s most powerful figure), after serving only a few months of a five-year sentence for corruption.

As if his release weren’t disappointing enough, Lee has since been invited by President Moon Jae-in, who poses as an anti-corruption warrior, to accompany him and a group of other chaebol bosses on a flight to Pyongyang, where they all explored possible business ties with the fanatically totalitarian, slave-labor-dependent Kim regime. Some reform!  

Lee Myung-bak

Well, there’s news from the supposed chaebol wars. No, a chaebol bigwig hasn’t been tossed in the clink. But another nabob has. On October 5, seventy-six-year-old Lee Myung-bak, who was President of South Korea from 2008 to 2013, was jailed for corruption. Arrested on March 22, he had been charged with receiving hefty bribes from Samsung and other firms, embezzling funds from the government treasury that had been appropriated for use by the nation’s intelligence services, and embezzling $21 million from an auto parts company that he owned through his brother. His sentence: fifteen years behind bars plus a $16 million fine.

Park Geun-hye

He’s not the only former president of South Korea who is currently serving time for corruption. His successor, Park Geun-hye, is six months into a thirty-three-year sentence. Two other South Korean presidents, as it happens, have also spent time in the slammer: Chun Doo-hwan, who held the high office from 1980 to 1988, and Roh Tae-woo, who succeeded Chun in 1988-93, were both convicted of bribery and sedition in 1996, and both were pardoned a year later.

Kim Sang-jo

If there is anything resembling reform underway in South Korea today, it may consist in the fact that corrupt presidents are now more likely to serve out their terms instead of being pardoned after a brief period of incarceration. But of course it remains to be seen whether Park and Lee are in the can for the duration or whether, like Chun and Roh, they’ll get sprung after the headlines die down. In the meantime, the self-styled “chaebol sniper,” Fair Trade Commissioner Kim Sang-jo, has yet to prove that he’s prepared to be as tough on current chaebol leaders as on the former presidents – who are, after all, being put away for engaging in illegal shenanigans with those very leaders.

Michigan’s recommendation-letter Nazi

John Cheney-Lippold

First of all, let’s make it clear that when we say “recommendation-letter Nazi,” we’re using “Nazi” in pretty much the same sense that it was used in the “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. In this case, the individual in question is a University of Michigan professor named John Cheney-Lippold. A few weeks ago, when one of his students, a young woman named Abigail, sent him an e-mail asking for a recommendation for a study trip to Israel, he agreed to provide one, only to send her an e-mail some time later rescinding his agreement.

He had, he explained, “missed out on a key detail,” namely the fact that the country she was planning to study in was Israel. This was problematic, because he supports the BDS movement. “As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” he wrote. His boycotting of Israel, he told Abigail, “includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

His book

Cheney-Lippold teaches in the Department of American Culture and has written a book called We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves. He is considered an expert on the way in which we represent ourselves online. If there is anything positive about the way in which he represented himself to Abigail in that e-mail, it is that he was polite and apologetic. Nor did he try to upbraid her or guilt-trip her for studying in Israel. In the present climate, we suppose, he should get points for that, at least.

Still, anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism.

In any event, his e-mail to Abigail spread quickly on the Internet after a pro-Zionist group at U of M posted it on Facebook on September 16. One fact that emerged soon afterwards was that Cheney-Lippold was wrong in stating that many academic departments at the U of M were involved in the BDS movement. The university’s PR office issued a statement affirming that it opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, and that none of the academic departments at the univeristy was officially involved in any such boycott. “It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their [sic] personal political beliefs to limit the support they [sic] are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” read the PR office’s statement. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

Another picture of Cheney-Lippold

Peruse that last sentence again. We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students. It is nearly beautiful in its near-meaninglessness, its riot of vague abstraction. Clearly, this is one university where communications with the outside world are in charge not of students of Chaucer and Shakespeare but of people who have proven themselves to be past masters of PR lingo.

For his own part, Cheney-Lippold, after being hunted down by an intrepid staffer for the Michigan Daily, provided the following comments. “I support the boycott because I support solidarity,” he said. “I follow the idea that people who are being discriminated against or people who need help … I feel compelled to help them. I was following a call by representatives of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel in a very similar tactical frame as South Africa.” (Does he write like this? Or just talk like this?) “The idea is that I support communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

He had more to say. “As a professor, I’m not just a machine writing things for people.” No, you see, when you ask him for a letter of recommendation, you’re initiating a “dialogue,” which involves “talking through differences and really figuring out where each other stands, not expecting something or assuming something, but really trying to get into what is the key difference. Seeing what can we do more, how can we have a larger campus-wide discussion. I want to push it beyond the horse-race politics of what John did or did not say.” Horse-race politics? Don’t ask us, we don’t get it either.

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.