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.

Wherein we take yet another snipe at the pathetic “chaebol sniper”

Now here’s a new twist.

As we’ve recounted in some detail on this site, South Korea is going through a rough patch, economically speaking. In the decades after the Korean War, the country grew with remarkable rapidity from an undeveloped backwater into an international powerhouse. Leading this spectacular advance was a relative handful of family-run conglomerates, known as chaebols (the plural in English is often rendered as “chaebol”), whose names – Samsung, Hyundai, etc. – have become famous around the world.

For decades, the chaebols were the engines of the South Korean economy. The nation’s populace looked up to them. The dearest hope of South Korean parents was that their kids would someday go to work for one of the chaebols. In recent years, however, there has been a discernible shift in public attitudes toward the chaebols. For one thing, they’ve increasingly been seen as crowding out new businesses and thus stifling both competition and innovation – thereby making it hard for the South Korean economy to grow even further. For another thing, as ordinary South Korean citizens have grown more and more accustomed to the idea of democracy and equal treatment under the law, they’ve also grown tired of the shameless double standards that have allowed the chaebol dynasties to get away with corruption on a massive scale.

Moon Jae-in

When Moon Jae-in became president in 2017, he promised to clean up the chaebols. Other presidents before him had made the same promise – among them his immediate predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who is now in prison because of illegal transactions with chaebol kingpins. But Moon insisted he really intended to tackle chaebol corruption. To prove it, he put the nation’s Fair Trade Commission in the hands of a fellow named Kim Sang-jo, who called himself the “chaebol sniper.” One gathered that President Moon had put the toughest guy he could find on the job – a sort of cross between Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and the Charles Bronson character in Death Wish. A fella who would make the bigwigs at Hyundai and Samsung tremble in their office towers and give them nightmares in their lavish mansions.

Kim Sang-jo

In fact, when it came to scaring the heck out of South Korea’s industrial giants, Kim turned out to be more like Kim Novak than Clint Eastwood. As we’ve noted, Kim, who at first came out with guns blazing, has more recently presented himself as a “reasonable reformist” who wants to nudge the chaebols, ever so gently, toward “evolutionary reform.” On January 3, in response to an extensive interview with Kim that appeared in the Korea Herald, we concluded that Kim was now yet another public official in Seoul whose posture toward the chaebols was that of a “servile brownnoser.”

Samsung honcho Jay Y. Lee being arrested last year for massive corruption; in accordance with time-honored South Korean practice, he was later given a suspended sentence

Well, it turns out that the Korea Herald story wasn’t the last word on Kim Sang-jo. On January 17, Kim Jaewon and Sotaro Suzuki reported in the Nikkei Asian Review that the sometime “chaebol sniper” was now – gasp – actually taking an adversarial position toward the chaebols. Or, at least, toward the people who run them. The ruling chaebol families, said Kim, “have lost the aggressive entrepreneurship that was shown by the generations of their founding grandfathers and fathers.” The current chaebol bosses, Kim continued, “were born as if they were princes in a kingdom. As the character of the families has changed, the decisive and quick decision-making process of the past has been replaced by a policy that focuses on the status quo to preserve their established power.”

True enough. Funny it took him so long to say so. Everybody else already had.

Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-koo

Kim went on to suggest that the people who have inherited their positions of power at the chaebols need to step down – or at least step away – from their posts, perhaps exchanging the title of CEO for that of Chairman, and choosing to concentrate on long-term strategy while allowing professional managers to make day-to-day decisions.

It doesn’t sound like a bad idea, at least to start with. But is Kim going to use his power to pressure the chaebol dynasties to do this? Or was this simply meant to be a modest suggestion from a man who, with every major media exposure, seems more and more determined to project a modest image? Apparently the latter. For Kim then went on to say: “If you thought I am a chaebol killer, you misunderstood me. The only way to succeed in chaebol reform is to make it predictable and sustainable.” Meaning what? Well, one’s first reaction is that this comment seems to have been formulated in such a way as to mean just about anything to just about anybody. It’s not a policy statement but a political slogan, every bit as empty and meaningless as “hope and change” or “stronger together.” No wonder both Moon and Kim are plunging in the polls.

A rocky start for 2019 in South Korea

Moon Jae-in

In South Korea, the year has kicked off with a bang. On January 8, the South China Morning Post reported that President Moon Jae-in had made some drastic changes in his administration. Moon, who was scoring big in the polls in the months after his inauguration in May 2017, has seen his popularity erode along with his country’s economy.

How to turn things around? Fire some people. Moon has dismissed his chief of staff, his senior political affairs secretary, and his senior press secretary. No sign, however, of him doing what he actually promised to do when he took office – namely, tame the chaebols, the corrupt, family-run business empires that are at one the engines and the anchors of the South Korean economy.

Trump: taking the opposite approach

On January 10 came another tidbit of news from the Blue House (which, of course, is Seoul’s answer to the White House). While Trump was slashing taxes and regulations, reported the Australian Financial Review, Moon was trying to cure his country’s economic ills by doing the opposite. Surprise! “So far,” wrote Michael Schuman, “it has not worked out as planned.”

Joblessness is up. Growth is down. Wages are flat. Both employers and employees are restive. And small businesses are suffering. Their costs are rising, but they’re not in a position to pass those costs on to buyers. Consequently, they’re shedding employees and finding other ways to cut corners.

The Blue House

All this might have been prevented if Moon had kept his promises and tackled the Great White Whale – the chaebols. But he chickened out. He would probably reject that characterization, pointing out that his budget for 2019 contains policy changes that are intended to reduce the power of the chaebols and help out smaller enterprises.

Others might argue that these initiatives are too little, too late. That Moon, take him for all in all, is essentially kicking the ball down the field. And allowing the South Korean economy to continue experiencing the consequences of his relative inaction.

Yang Sung-tae

Then, on January 11, Choe Sang-hun of the New York Times reported on a unprecedented development in South Korea. Yang Sung-tae, a former justice of the Supreme Court, had been confronted by prosecutors over charges that he had “conspired to delay a case that could upset relations with Japan.”

The case was brought by a group of South Koreans who, during the Japanese occupation, were subjected to forced labor by such firms at Mitsubishi. Yang will probably be indicted – a first in the voluminous annals of modern South Korean corruption.

Moon’s government, then, is on shaky ground. The South Korean judiciary has experienced a major embarrassment. The country’s small businesses are even more precariously positioned than they were a couple of years ago. And the ordinary citizens of South Korea are having more and more trouble making ends meet.

But amid all this loss and insecurity and scandal, the chaebols, as always, continue to stand strong.

Chaebol progress?

 

The current chapter in the history of the chaebols continues to develop in exceedingly interesting ways.

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

As we have been discussing on a regular basis at this site in recent weeks, these massive, heavily diversified, internationally famous, and family-run conglomerates – which have dominated the South Korean economy since shortly after the Korean War, raising the nation up from indigence to prosperity even as its government moved gradually closer to real democracy – have hit on challenging times. Once engines of growth, the chaebols are now barriers to further growth, so large and powerful that they’re capable of crushing, with little effort, the development of new firms and stifling the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

As a result, in South Korea there is hardly any way to make a respectable career in business other than to find a job at one of the chaebols. And however talented and motivated one may be, there is no way to rise to the very top of one of the chaebols unless one happens to have been born into the right family. This state of affairs has led to growing resentment toward the chaebols – a resentment intensified by the corrupt ties between the chaebol dynasties and the country’s political elites, and, perhaps most bizarre of all, by the fact that the people who hold tight to the reins of power in these conglomerates are not necessarily the same people who own the lion’s share of their stock. On the contrary, it is rare indeed for the stockholders in the chaebols to have much say at all in their actual management.

Moon Jae-in

As we’ve discussed here, and as Kim Jaewon noted in a recent article for Nikkei, South Korean Moon Jae-in, upon his inauguration in May 2017, promised major chaebol reform. To be sure, it is a tradition for newly installed South Korean presidents to vow chaebol reform. But Moon spoke so insistently about the matter that he persuaded a good many citizens of his country that he really meant to do something. As the weeks and months have gone by since he took power, however, fewer and fewer have looked upon his assurances with confidence; and, as the usual arrests for corruption have taken place, followed by the usual pardons for the chaebol executives involved and the usual prison terms for the politicians, once again cynicism about the chaebols has been on the upswing.

Lee Kung-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics

It is in this atmosphere that a few bold chaebol shareholders are finally standing up to the perverse power arrangement that they have quietly accepted for so long. These activist investors, observed Jaewon, “have scored minor victories at Samsung and Hyundai, while the parent of Korean Air Lines has been called to account by a domestic fund.” At the head of the list of these investors, wrote Jaewon, is the New York-based Elliott Management, the world’s largest activist fund, which has been campaigning “to force Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor to increase shareholder returns.”

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo

This campaign by activist investors has already begun to bear fruit. In early December, Samsung Electronics “retired 7% of its common stock and 8.9% of its preferred stock worth 4.9 trillion won ($4.4 billion)” in an effort to provide shareholders with greater benefits. Hyundai Motor recently announced plans to “buy 2.8 million treasury shares worth 254.7 billion won by the end of February to boost its stock price and shareholders’ value.” In December, it even took the action – surprising within a South Korean context – of “promoting several foreign executives to senior roles, a first step toward the management diversification long demanded by minority shareholders.”

Marriage, chaebol style

 

Yes, they are royal families.

There’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world. The clans that run the South Korean chaebols – the relatively small number of sprawling, internationally famous conglomerates that have dominated that country’s economy since not long after the Korean War – have long been viewed as royal families. The top executive positions at these companies pass down from generation to generation; the men (they are almost invariably men) who hold these offices wield enormous power over the nation’s political class; and the sons and daughters of these bosses are celebrities, whose social lives are followed closely in the popular media, and who are often, indeed, described as princes and princesses.

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

One thing that these chaebol families have in common with actual royal dynasties is the high level of intermarriage between them. According to a new survey, 49.3% members of the founding generation of the chaebol clans – the people who actually established these firms in the second half of the last century – are or were married to spouses who also belonged to families that founded chaebols. Among members of the second generation of chaebol ruling families,the figure is even higher: 52.7% of the people whose parents founded chaebols married other people who parents also founded chaebols.

In South Korea, just as the management of chaebols is almost universally dynastic matter, politics is also very often a family game. Former President Park Geun-hye, for instance, who is currently behind bars because of her involvement in chaebol corruption, is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee. Many chaebol family members who do not marry into other chaebol families have, instead, married into powerful political families, which both reflects and reinforces the intimate ties that bind chaebol CEOs and Chairmen to officials at the highest level of the South Korean government. Among members of the first generation of chaebols, 23.4% were or are married to members of “powerful” political families; in the second generation, this figure declined to 7.4%.

Park Geun-hye

The survey produced some other interesting findings. Of all the chaebols, the GS Group, had the highest number of “in-law relations” with other chaebols, namely seven. GS, like most of these conglomerates, is highly diversified, although in its case there is a particular emphasis on oil, gas, and other energy-related products. The second chaebol on the list, with six “in-law relations,” was the LS Group, which manufactures power cables, electrical equipment, machinery, and other such products.

Why does any of this matter? Because these statistics serve to reinforce the perception, on the part of many ordinary South Koreans, that their country – in which democracy has, admittedly, made great strides over the last several decades – is still, to a deplorable extent, governed by a network of business and political kingpins, people who are tied to one another not only by shared financial interests and systematic corruption but, yes, by the most intimate of family bonds.

Finally: street protests against chaebol corruption!

Moon Jae-in

On this site we’ve been reporting for some time on the lavish vows by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reform the chaebols, those massive family-run conglomerates that have served as the foundation of that country’s economy since not long after the Korean War – and that have increasingly been viewed with disfavor by that country’s citizens because of their extraordinary levels of corruption, nepotism, and impunity, not to mention their power to choke potential competitors in the cradle.

We’ve introduced our readers to Kim Sang-jo, not exactly intimidating man who was supposedly delegated by Moon with the task of challenging chaebol corruption and who, laughably, calls himself the “chaebol sniper.” And we’ve discussed the chaebol shareholders who, after years of biting their tongues, are finally starting to rebel against the bizarre system whereby clans that own only a small percentage of their companies nonetheless rule them with an iron hand.

Kim Sang-jo

Now comes some encouraging news. On November 21, with the backing of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), more than 150,000 South Korean workers walked out of factories at firms like Samsung and Hyundai in protest against the utter failure of Moon’s government to come across with the chaebol reforms he promised.

The KCTU did not mince words in describing the situation in South Korea. “There has not been any real progress in chaebol reform,” it said. The KCTU added: “We think our labour rights as well as corporate reform have actually worsened under the Moon administration.”

Park Geun-hye

The KCTU further noted that the chaebol kingpins Lee Jae-yong (Samsung) and Shin Dong-bin (Lotte) had recently been arrested, tried, and convicted of bribing former President Park Geun-hye (who left office in disgrace because of the scandal) only to be given suspended sentences. Such special treatment for chaebol top guns is a longstanding tradition in South Korean politics and jurisprudence, and one that is making the nation’s citizens increasingly restive.

Hence the worker walkout.

Lee Myung-bak

That November 21 protest, moreover, was only one part of a growing nationwide uprising against President Moon. Every weekend of late, South Koreans have poured into the streets of Seoul in huge numbers to express their rage over Moon’s failure to keep his pledges. Describing these demonstrations as “raucous,” the Financial Times noted that while President Park and another former president, Lee Myung-bak, have ended up behind bars for corruption, the chaebol masters who were involved in the same acts of corruption still seem to be above the law.

According to FT, the probability that a chaebol boss convicted of corruption will get a suspended sentence exceeds 70% – while the comparable rate among non-chaebol leaders is 40%. As for poor schlubs who are found guilty of “street crimes,” such as petty theft, only 20% of them can expect to have their sentences suspended, even though the scale of their crimes is, of course, outrageously trivial compared to the monstrous malfeasances routinely committed by chaebol royalty.

Chaebols: are the “ants” finally rebelling?

The South China Morning Post recently ran a fascinating piece by Geoffrey Cain and Max Kim. Its premise, as stated in the first sentence, was as follows: “The family-run conglomerates that power South Korea’s economy have long been above listening to individual shareholders – or ants. But as the scandals mount, and take down presidents, those ants are fighting back.”

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

We’ve written frequently at this site, of course, about those South Korean conglomerates – known as chaebols – that are notorious for their outsized power and corruption and for the perverse fact that the power is in the hands of families that own small percentages of these behemoths and not in the hands of shareholders.

Just as a certain 2016 presidential candidate called ordinary Americans who work hard and pay taxes “deplorables,” the people who actually inject their own cash into these companies – and are therefore, technically, their owners – are called “ants.”

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

Cain and Kim noted a couple of the high-profile corruption trials and convictions that have taken place in the last year or so and that we’ve written about here. But they added this highly interesting point: “In fried chicken and beer joints, in coffee shops in Seoul’s financial district of Yeouido, and in mobile app chats where investors circulate industry gossip, individual shareholders – known as ‘ants’ in investment circles – are getting rowdy and putting up a fight.”

LG headquarters, Seoul

About time. To some of us, the passivity of chaebol shareholders has never made a great deal of sense. It can only be understood as a cultural thing, a sign of the near-reverence with which the chaebol families have long been regarded. After the Korean War, these families founded these companies, and these companies, in turn, raised South Korea up from an impoverished Third World land to an economic powerhouse. Hence the family patriarchs came to be viewed as virtual royalty.

Hanjin headquarters, Seoul

But no more. “Corporate shareholder meetings have stretched for more than a dozen hours,” wrote Cain and Kim, “as shareholders barrage CEOs with questions; others have stormed the microphone, only to be removed by security.” They quote one “ant’s” summing-up of the way South Koreans have been trained to think about these things: “Finance is like the written word of ancient times,” he said. “It is the privilege of the ruling class. It is the preserve of the elite.” Well, if these signs of revolt are portents of a new era, then that kind of old-fashioned deference to a handful of powerful clans may well be on the way out. Which, it has to be said, is a healthy sign for South Korean democracy.

The chaebol suicides

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Another week, another stroll down memory lane. Chaebol memory lane, to be specific. In recent weeks we’ve been recounting the stories of various top-level executives of these massive South Korean conglomerates – men who, as is their wont, have ended up in hot water, and often in courtrooms (and, sometimes, at least briefly in prison cells) because of their corruption.

To be sure, chaebol leaders who get caught with their hands in the till don’t always end up arrested or imprisoned or pardoned. The South Korean shame culture leads some of them to take their lives. You might wonder why, if the shame culture is a powerful enough psychological phenomenon to drive these people to suicide, it doesn’t keep them from bribing and embezzling and so on in the first place. But that question is perhaps beyond the scope of this blog.

Chung Mong-hun

Here are a few examples of high-level South Korean self-slaughter. On August 4, 2003, Chung Mong-hun, the chairman of Hyundai and the son of its founder, jumped to his death from his 12th-floor office window. As the New York Times put it, Hyundai was South Korea’s “economic ambassador to the Communist North”; Chung had played a key role in arranging an historic summit in June 2000 between Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. Afterward, however, South Korean auditors looked into the behind-the-scenes dealings relating to the summit and found that Chung had illegally paid a massive bribe to Pyongyang. He was about to be arrested for this crime when he chose to take the leap from his office window.

Roh Moo-hyun

On May 23, 2009, Roh Moo-hyun, who had served as president of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, killed himself by jumping off a cliff near his home. He had been under investigation for accepting $6 million in bribes from the business sector during his presidency. He had already been interrogated, and his wife was scheduled for questioning by investigators on the day of his death. He had already said that he “was losing face and that he was disappointing his supporters”; in a suicide note, he wrote: “nothing is left in my life but to be a burden to others….Don’t be too sad. Aren’t life and death both a piece of nature? Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anyone. It is fate.”

Lee In-won


Two years ago it was Lee In-won’s turn. Lee, the #2 man at the Lotte Group, which at the time was South Korea’s fifth largest conglomerate, when he was
found dead in August 2016 beside a walking and cycling path near Seoul; he had hanged himself from a tree with his necktie. Lee, age 69, had spent 43 years at Lotte, where he was the highest ranking official not belonging to the conglomerate’s ruling Shin family. His suicide took place two months after police – tipped off about crooked deals among Lotte subsidiaries that led to the formation of a slush fund – raided the firm’s offices in search of evidence of those crooked deals. At the time of Lee’s suicide, he was scheduled to be grilled by prosecutors about these irregularities.

Lotte has less of an international profile than other major chaebols such as Samsung and Hyundai because its wealth is derived not from high-tech products exported around the world but primarily from apartment buildings, hotels, malls, cinemas, fast-food restaurants, and other such busineses in South Korea. It has about 80 subsidiaries and over 300,000 employees. The New York Times reported that Lee “was one of the professional executives commonly known in South Korea as vassals, for their loyalty to the families that control the business empires. These executives rarely betray their bosses during corruption investigations.”

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.

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.