Will Samsung’s Lee be in handcuffs tomorrow?

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Samsung headquarters in Seoul

When we last left our South Korean friends in the Blue House and the chaebol boardrooms, the probe into Samsung’s cash transfers to foundations linked to presidential chum Choi Soon-sil – apparently in exchange for support for a merger between two Samsung subsidiaries – had entered a new phase. Documents had been confiscated at several locations, including the homes of several Samsung executives; the independent counsel had issued an arrest warrant for Choi’s daughter; and Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, who is the firm’s de facto top dog and the son of its founder and chairman, Lee Kung-hee, had been barred from leaving the country.

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Lee Jae-yong

The latest update came on Monday in the Wall Street Journal. The special prosecutors, reported Eun-Young Jeong, Jonathan Cheng, and Timothy W. Martin, were seeking an arrest warrant for Lee on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and perjury. In order to be able to issue the warrant, they need to solicit approval from a South Korean court, which is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow to entertain that request. If approval is granted, Lee – who spent 22 hours last week being interrogated – will be taken into custody while the prosecutors continue to pursue their investigation. Samsung was quick to reply to the prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant, repeating previous denials that it had made contributions in exchange for favors or made any “improper requests related to the merger of Samsung affiliates or the leadership transition.”

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Lee Kun-hee

The Journal noted that if Lee is indeed incarcerated for any length of time, the conglomerate “could face a leadership vacuum while smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co. is also reeling from a massive recall of its Galaxy Note 7 device. It could also put on hold any further attempts to reorganize one of the world’s most complex business empires.” Indeed, it would almost certainly have a significant impact on the South Korean economy, given that Samsung alone, as the Journal pointed out, “accounts for nearly one-third of South Korea’s stock-market value.”

Meanwhile President Park Geun-hye’s fate also lies in the balance. Last month the National Assembly voted to impeach her, and the Constitutional Court is debating whether to unseat her from the office she has held since February 2013. If the evidence proves that Lee is guilty of the charges leveled against him, it is more likely that the same evidence will help convict Park as well.

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Park Geun-hye

It should be underscored that the current Samsung probe is far from the first to target one of the chaebol – the massive, family-run conglomerates that have formed the foundation of the postwar South Korean economy. Over the years, other chaebol executives – including Lee’s father, who reportedly pocketed $8.9 billion in Samsung funds – have been indicted and convicted on corruption charges. But almost all of them have received presidential pardons that kept them out of jail. The history of brazen, high-level corruption at the conglomerates has underscored the special privileges enjoyed by the clans that own and run them as well as the intimate, one-hand-washes-the-other relationship that has long existed between them and the office of the president.

This time, however, the story may take a fresh turn: the #1 man at the nation’s #1 company may end up going down for good, and when he does, he may very well take the president down with him. Stay tuned.

Cristina’s Christmas present

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Well, it’s happened again. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Argentina, Julian Ercolini, ordered a trial of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president of that country from 2007 to 2015, on charges of corruption.

Also ordered to face trial were Julio de Vido, Kirchner’s sometime Minister of Federal Planning, and José Francisco López, former state secretary for public buildings.

According to the indictment, all three former officials are accused of forming an illegal association that was “created to commit crimes” involving the theft of “funds that were assigned to road works” – specifically, 52 projects in Santa Cruz province, where Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, served as governor before preceding her as president.

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Lázaro Báez

Already in court is contractor Lázaro Báez, whose company Austral Construcciones profited from the corruption scheme. Austral, it is reported, received over $4 billion in road-construction contracts from the Kirchner administration; of that amount, about $1 billion is estimated to have constituted illegal surcharges.

Judge Ercolini also froze $893 million in Kirchner’s personal assets.

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Cristina Kirchner with Axel Kiciloff

It’s the second time this has happened since she left office: in May, Kirchner, along with her former Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff and former Central Bank head Alejandro Vanoli, was indicted on charges of making illegal contracts to sell U.S. dollars at below market rates, supposedly with an eye to strengthening the peso. Instead of helping the Argentinian economy, these hijinks are said to have damaged it.

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José Francisco López

Inveterate readers of this site may recall that López, a longtime crony of Nestor Kirchner and “right-hand man” to de Vido, was arrested in June while trying to hide plastic bags full of money at a Buenos Aires convent. In addition to the plastic bags, he had a suitcase full of money, and he had driven these bags and suitcase to the convent in a car whose trunk was also full of money. The total stash: about $7 million dollars in the form of U.S. dollars, euros, yen, and other denominations. He also had a bunch of jewelry and several watches. And was packing a gun.

Apparently, all that dough was just a fraction of the massive sum fleeced from Argentinian taxpayers by by Kirchner, de Vido, López, Báez and company.

Kirchner, who was indicted in May for incompetent administration, was not taken into custody.

Digging up Samsung’s dirt

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Samsung headquarters

The probe into corruption at Samsung and the Blue House – South Korea’s presidential palace – entered a new stage on Wednesday, with investigators racing to get to the bottom of last year’s shady merger between Samsung C&T and another Samsung affiliate, Cheil Industries.

A quick summary of what we already know: last year, Samsung donated $20 million to two entities, the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation, that are linked to Choi Soon-sil, an intimate of President Park Geun-hye. Samsung also funneled sizable amounts of cash to Choi and her family through a German corporation she controls and even underwrote her teenage daughter’s pricey equestrian activities.

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Choi Soon-sil

Why exactly did they fork over all this dough to Choi & co.? The working theory, in three words: quid pro quo. Try to follow this reaction pathway: Samsung bigwigs are believed to have bribed Choi to lean on her BFF, President Park, to order the National Pension Service – a major Samsung stockholder – to approve of the C&T/Chiel merger. The pension execs, as it happens, did indeed end up voting for the merger, even though their analysts had urged them to give it a thumbs-down.

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Lee Jae-yong

In short, the guardians of South Korea’s retirement funds didn’t do what was best for retirees or for fellow C&T and Cheil stockholders (who, recognizing the merger as unfavorable to their interests, fiercely opposed the merger). They did what was best for the powers that be at Samsung, period. Especially Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong.

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President Park Geun-hye

At least that’s where the available evidence – largely acquired during a previous round of prosecutorial raids – seems to point. Now two investigative teams, one of them led by special independent counsel Park Young-soo, are intensifying the probe. On Wednesday, seeking further evidence, Park’s team – which has 70 days (with a 30-day extension if necessary) to complete its work – confiscated documents and hard drives at about ten locations, including the National Pension Service’s asset management office, the headquarters of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the homes of several Samsung executives.

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Chung Yoo-rah

That’s not all. The independent counsel has also secured an arrest warrant for Chung Yoo-rah, Choi’s horse-happy daughter, now 19. Since Chung is believed to be in Germany, the counsel has asked German officials to extradite her, has requested her German credit-card and phone records,  and has arranged for the cancellation of her passport. The investigators are even scrutinizing Chung’s high-school record, which turns out to have been faked. (The national educational department has already revoked her diploma.)

Meanwhile Lee – who, since his father, Lee Kung-hee, suffered a heart attack in May 2014, has been Samsung’s de facto top dog, and hence South Korea’s most powerful businessperson – has been barred from leaving the country. Earlier this month, the younger Lee testified at a parliamentary hearing that he didn’t know Choi and that Samsung’s payouts to her and her organizations were not bribes. According to one source, the independent counsel’s main goal is to find out whether or not that’s true.

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A car that was reportedly set on fire by an exploding Samsung Galaxy 7 phone

The whole scandal is, of course, a huge blow to Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate and the ultimate symbol of the nation’s postwar economic success. And it’s happening, note well, at a time when Samsung is still smarting from its exploding-phone fiasco.

So start the countdown: seventy days. For our part, we can’t wait to see what Park Young-soo and his colleagues dig up.

Did Park take Samsung cash to push a merger? Looks like it.

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Park Geun-hye

The soap opera in Seoul continues. On Tuesday, in a brief TV address, President Park Geun-hye offered to avoid impeachment by resigning – although not immediately – from office. Opposition legislators, viewing the offer as an attempt to quash the impeachment effort, said no, promising to go ahead with the impeachment vote, which had been planned for today, but which has now been postponed to next Friday. By day before yesterday, however, parliamentarians from Park’s party had switched from supporting impeachment to going along with a deal to let her resign – even though she might not quit until some time in April.

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Choi Sun-sil

Meanwhile prosecutors continue to uncover details of the corruption scandal that set all this drama in motion. As we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, the probe centers on fishy payouts by various family-run conglomerates – known in South Korea as chaebols – to foundations under the control of Park’s close friend Choi Sun-sil. Among these suspicious outlays are multiple contributions by the Samsung Group, the biggest chaebol of all, that added up to a cool $20 million.

What did Samsung get in return for its $20 million? That’s under investigation, too. One focus is on last year’s merger between two companies in the Samsung Group – Samsung C&T, which is involved in construction, trade, apparel, and resorts, and Cheil Industries, which sells textiles, apparel, and chemicals.

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Lee Jae-yong

The merger was a subject of fierce contention. On one side were the top honchos at the Samsung Group, who strongly favored the merger because they considered it necessary to keep the group under strict family control – a chaebol tradition. Lee Jae-yong, Vice Chairman of Samsung Electronics, was especially pro-merger, because he and his family owned 42% of Cheil, and the merger terms were highly favorable to Cheil shareholders.

These insiders were vigorously opposed, however, by various outsider shareholders in Samsung C&T, who believed – with good reason – that the merger wasn’t in their own best interests.

So who cast the deciding votes – the votes that put the merger over the top? South Korea’s National Pension Service, which owned 11% of Samsung C&T. Which raises another question: why did the pension fund vote the way it did?

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Samsung headquarters

Now comes an answer. In a major revelation, a member of the pension fund’s decision-making advisory board has told the Hankyoreh – South Korea’s most respected independent newspaper – the story behind its pro-merger vote. The fund, he said, didn’t vote for the merger because its analysts decided that was the preferred choice for South Korean pensioners. On the contrary, a consulting firm that the fund had hired to advise it on the question had come down firmly against the merger.

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Blue House

Why, then, did the fund give the merger a thumbs-up? According to the official who spoke to the Hankyoreh, it did so in response to direct pressure from two quarters. One was the Minister of Health and Welfare, who phoned the official and urged a pro-merger vote. The other was a friend of the official who called him on behalf of the Blue House itself – South Korea’s White House.

“My friend told me,” the pension official recounted, “that the Blue House’s position was that I should vote in favor of the merger. If the merger was rejected, he said, the transfer of power at the Samsung Group would run into trouble, which might damage a company that is so important to the Korean economy. A few days later, I got another phone call to the same effect, again representing the Blue House’s position.”

As Hankyoreh puts it, there are “deepening suspicions that the Blue House’s actions were made to compensate Samsung for the assistance it was giving to Choi.” No kidding. Let’s see how this develops.

Gangnam steal

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Park Geun-hye

Things are moving fast in South Korea. Early last week we caught up with developments in that country, where a massive scandal is roiling the chaebols (i.e. Samsung, Hyundai, and the other conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the economy) and is threatening to bring down President Park Geun-hye – who stands accused of helping her longtime chum Choi Soon-sil shake the chaebols down to the tune of some $69 million.

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Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Since we ran those pieces, there’s been a major new development. Last Wednesday, prosecutors raided Samsung’s headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul, the offices of the national pension service, and the office of Hong Wan-sun, who until earlier this year was chief investment officer at the pension service. Last year, as Jonathan Cheng and Eun-Young Jeong wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the pension fund “cast a decisive vote in favor of a merger of two Samsung affiliates” – namely, Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T – “that strengthened the grip of vice chairman and third-generation heir Lee Jae-yong on smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co., the crown jewel of the business empire.” The raids were reportedly part of a probe of that merger. One detail overlooked by the Journal, but emphasized by one South Korean news source, was that this was the third raid on Samsung in a month – an indication that prosecutors had “already made significant progress in their investigation.” The same source indicated that this time around the raid focused largely on the office of Choi Ji-sung, Samsung’s Future Strategy czar.

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Lee Jae-yong

As the Journal‘s reporters noted, all this comes at a tough time for Samsung, which alone accounts for 17% of the South Korean economy. The discovery that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone could overheat and explode in a life-threatening conflagration led to two full recalls, cost over $5 billion, and caused the firm enormous embarrassment, leading to what may be long-lasting brand damage.

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Galaxy Note 7

The ultimate impact of this scandal, however, may be even more explosive than the Galaxy Note 7. As Bloomberg News observed in the wake of the Wednesday raids, it’s “raising fresh questions about decades of cozy ties between the nation’s big conglomerates and those in power.” While one president after another (including Park) has promised to limit the chaebols’ influence, each of those presidents has continued to play the same old game, exchanging favors, breaks, perks, etc., for cash on the barrel head. So far, it’s mostly been Park’s reputation that has suffered: once a popular leader, she’s now got an approval rating in the single digits. But as the South Korean public watches the country’s most powerful businessmen being paraded into police interrogation rooms like small-time crooks, and sees prosecutors raiding the offices of the nation’s largest and most prestigious company as if it were a Mafia operation, the chaebols – whose reputations have already been on the skids for years – are bound to lose even more of their luster. 

The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is just beginning to get underway. As the details of chaebol corruption continue to be investigated, uncovered, analyzed, and publicized, we’ll continue to monitor developments.

Oases of privilege: the chaebols today

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Samsung headquarters in Seoul

The current South Korean corruption scandal (which we’ve been discussing this week) has blighted the images of the Brobdingnagian conglomerates – among them Samsung and Hyundai – that are known in that country as chaebols. Once admired – even revered – for helping transform South Korea into a respected powerhouse of technological production, the chaebols are now increasingly seen as oases of inherited wealth and privilege whose position of dominance and massive competitive advantage are unfair to start-up entrepreneurs and extremely unhealthful for the economy as a whole. That the chaebols have been shown again and again to be infected by immense levels of corruption at the loftiest levels has only further darkened their public image.

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SK Group headquarters, Seoul

So has the staggering degree of impunity enjoyed by the highest-ranking chaebol executives and their families. As we noted in September, “however criminal or incompetent the head of a chaebol may be, he enjoys invulnerability and unaccountability on a scale unheard of in any other developed democracy.” As one South Korean businessman put it: “At companies in advanced countries, a faulty CEO is replaced. But at South Korean conglomerates, the head of a conglomerate wields absolute authority and is not replaced no matter how grievous his mistakes are.”

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CJ Group headquarters, Seoul

One of the matters being investigated in connection with the current scandal is the charge that President Park Geun-hye, in 2013, ordered her then economics secretary to pressure CJ Group (one of the largest chaebols) to fire its chairwoman, Miky Lee Mie Kyung. Lee, the granddaughter of Samsung founder Lee Byung Chul, had apparently angered Park by producing entertainment programming that was “unfavourable to the government.” In a clandestinely recorded conversation, Cho darkly warned CJ Group executive Sohn Kyung Shik “that there would be consequences if the request was not followed.”

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Choi Tae-won

As we’ve seen, prosecutors have been interrogating some of the top guys at the very biggest chaebols. But prosecutors aren’t the only officials who want to talk to the chaebol honchos: on November 21, the ruling and opposition parties in the South Korean parliament agreed to summon the heads of the seven largest chaebols to testify as witnesses in that body’s own investigation of the scandal. Among them is Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-koo, who nine years ago was pardoned by then president Lee Myung-bak after being found guilty of embezzling $100 million to bribe government officials. Another prospective witness is SK Group chairman Choi Tae-won, who three years ago was pardoned by President Park after being found guilty of embezzling over $40 million. These guys, in short, are old hands at being caught with their hands in the till – and then being set free so they could resume their thievery.

Their testimonies are scheduled for the parliament’s first hearing on the scandal, on December 5; eight days later, Choi Soon-sil herself, the woman at the center of the whole shebang, will be questioned at another parliamentary hearing along with other suspected participants. We’ll be sure to keep our readers updated on developments.

Facing the music in South Korea

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Syngman Rhee in 1956

Corruption scandals involving presidents and top-flight business leaders are to South Korea what coq au vin is to France. Vote-rigging allegations drove Syngman Rhee (president from 1948 to 1960) into exile in Hawaii; after they left office, both Chun Doo-Hwan (1980-88) and Roh Tae-Woo (1988-93) were tried and found guilty of mutiny, treason, and bribe-taking; Kim Young-Sam (1993-98) wasn’t jailed for corruption, but his son was; Roh Moo-Hyun (2003-08) was impeached and later committed suicide amidst bribery allegations. And that’s just a sampling.

Now, as we saw yesterday, it’s President Park Geun-hye’s turn to face the music. Choi Soon-sil, her friend of forty years, has already been taken into custody for a scheme, in which both women were involved, to squeeze money out of the huge – and hugely corrupt – conglomerates called chaebols that are at the heart of the country’s economy and that invariably play a big role in every major South Korean financial scandal.

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Park Geun-Hye

In July of last year, according to the charges, Park met individually with the heads of the seven largest chaebols and demanded that they fork over millions to two Choi-run institutions, the Mir Foundartion and the K-Sports Foundation. Park refuses to quit over this affair, but national outrage is mounting steadily, and opposition parties are on track to impeach her. Something’s got to give, and soon.

Naturally, the whole ugly mess has also plunged the chaebols – for what feels like the hundredth time – into yet another calamity of their own making. For them, this crisis comes at an inopportune time. They’ve already endured years of weak domestic sales and low export levels. Now, thanks to the current scandal, the possibility of serious legal consequences looms – and something close to chaos reigns. “Normally,” one leading business figure told the Korea Times, “companies have an idea about what their business plans will be like around this time of the year. But as far as I know, many haven’t even begun drawing up plans yet due to increasing uncertainties.”

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo attends the company's opening ceremony for the year in Seoul in this January 2, 2012 file photo. South Korea's smartphones and cars may have won global acceptance, but back home Koreans are increasingly disturbed by the influence the chaebol have over their lives. That very public anxiety is coming at a sensitive time for the conglomerates as they prepare the transtion to a third generation of family owners and face a strong, unwelcome, focus of attention in the run-up to 2012's parliamentary election. Hyundai Motor's Chung Mong-koo was sentenced to a three year jail term in 2007 for fraud which was suspended in exchange for community service and a $1 billion charity donation as he was deemed too important to the economy to be jailed. To match Insight KOREA-CHAEBOL/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files
Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo

One after another, the superstars of South Korean business are being called on the carpet. On the weekend of November 12-13, prosecutors interrogated Chung Mong-koo, chair of Hyundai Motor Group, Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, and Lee Jae-yong, vice chair of Samsung (and next in line to run the whole shop) about their firms’ irregular money transfers to Choi’s foundations. Two days later, as part of a probe of a suspicious payment made by Samsung to a company owned by Choi and her daughter, hard drives and financial records were confiscated in a raid on the offices of Samsung’s advertising unit, Cheil Worldwide. It now appears that Samsung (which makes up a whopping 17% of the South Korean economy) donated a total of over $15 million to Choi’s foundations, in addition to which it reportedly offered no less than $3.1 million to pay for Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. Yes, you read that right: $3.1 million for one person’s equestrian training.

This is, as it happens, precisely the kind of royal extravagance that has turned so many South Koreans against the self-indulgent excesses of their political and corporate elite. More on that tomorrow.

Seoul sisters

Berlin, Staatsbesuch Präsident von Süd-Korea
Park Chung-hee

It wasn’t much more than a couple of months ago that we took a gander at South Korea’s chaebols, the massive firms – such as Samsung and Hyundai – that make up a huge portion of that country’s economy and that have been at the center of one scandal after another, in which top politicians have been accused of taking huge sums from the giant companies in exchange for monopolies, patents, tax breaks, and the like.

This practice, known as rent sharing, became established during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (1963-79), and has continued into the country’s democratic era. Presidents Roh Tae Woo (1988-92) and Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2002) were both found guilty of taking chaebol cash; President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) responded to allegations of accepting chaebol bribes by jumping to his death in a ravine.

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Park Geun-hye

Now South Korea is embroiled in what may be the biggest chaebol scandal yet. In a case that began to make headlines just last month, President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, has been accused of helping a longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, extort some $69 million from several of the chaebols and letting her receive classified documents. On November 1, Choi was taken into custody by police.

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Seoul protest against Park

Members of Park’s own party have called for her impeachment; countless people have taken part in demonstrations around the country demanding her resignation or arrest; over half a million gathered in Seoul this past Saturday in the largest protest the country has experienced since the end of authoritarian government in 1987.

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Choi Soon-sil

The corruption scheme began when a South Korean TV network, JTBC, reported that Choi had improperly received secret government documents via e-mail. Choi, who is said to have received the above-mentioned $69 million through two foundations she controls, is widely viewed as the real power behind the president, who has been in office since 2013; editorial cartoons have depicted her as Park’s puppet master. Prior to her arrest, Choi apologized for having “committed a deadly sin” and asked the public for its forgiveness.

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Park Chung-hee (left) meeting with Choi Tae-min

Choi and Park go back a long way: Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, was a shady character and ecclesiastical huckster (the New York Times has called him a “religious charlatan”) who, in addition to founding a marginal sect called the Church of Eternal Life, managed to wangle his way into the role of close friend and adviser to Park’s father.

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The Blue House

Like father, like daughter: the younger Choi not only succeeded her father as head of his daffy church; she also wields a great deal of power in the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House, even though she holds no official title. For years, according to CNN, Choi “has given Park spiritual guidance.” She’s seen, in fact, as something of a Rasputin, who’s dragged into the presidential orbit a load of astrological hogwash and mystical hocus-pocus.

On Sunday, lead prosecutor Lee Young-ryol said that he would investigate President Park, whom he called an “accomplice” of Choi’s in the scandal and who has so far refused to be interrogated by police. (Park now becomes the first South Korean president to be criminally investigated while still in office.) Lee also announced that he had indicted Choi on charges of extortion and abuse of power and had charged two former Park aides with pressuring firms to donate to Choi’s foundations and handing her classified documents.

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Hwang Kyo-ahn

Fortunately for Park – who has already dismissed ten senior policy aides, several cabinet members, and the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn – she’s protected by the Constitution from prosecution (except in cases of treason and insurrection) as long as she stays in office. But her approval rating is at a miserable 5%, and things are changing quickly as the investigation passes into the hands of a parliament-appointed special prosecutor. If she gets impeached, she may go straight from the Blue House to the Big House.

Meanwhile, of course, all this has shaken up several of the chaebols, whose leaders have been questioned by the police. We’ll get to that tomorrow.

Corruption at the chaebols

Yesterday we began looking at the chaebols, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the South Korean business world. Here’s a quick overview of three of the very largest chaebols. See if you notice any running themes:

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    Lee Kun-hee

    Samsung – the largest of all the chaebols, making up no less than 17% of the South Korean economy – is chaired by Lee Kun-hee, son of the firm’s founder. Lee resigned in 2008 after being caught with a secret slush fund that he used to bribe government officials, but was pardoned by President Lee Myung-bak and promptly resumed his chairmanship. He continues to stay in office despite a book, published in 2010, that describes in detail how he stole about $9 billion of Samsung’s money.

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo attends the company's opening ceremony for the year in Seoul in this January 2, 2012 file photo. South Korea's smartphones and cars may have won global acceptance, but back home Koreans are increasingly disturbed by the influence the chaebol have over their lives. That very public anxiety is coming at a sensitive time for the conglomerates as they prepare the transtion to a third generation of family owners and face a strong, unwelcome, focus of attention in the run-up to 2012's parliamentary election. Hyundai Motor's Chung Mong-koo was sentenced to a three year jail term in 2007 for fraud which was suspended in exchange for community service and a $1 billion charity donation as he was deemed too important to the economy to be jailed. To match Insight KOREA-CHAEBOL/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files
Chung Mong-koo
  • Hyundai is another of the so-called “Big Four” chaebols. Its chairman, Chung Mong-koo, son of the firm’s founder, was convicted in 2007 of embezzling $100 million to bribe government officials, but he was pardoned by Lee Myung-bak and remained in office.

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    Choi Tae-won

    Yet another one of the “Big Four,” SK Group, is chaired by Choi Tae-won, son of the group’s founder. In 2013, Choi was found guilty of embezzling over $40 million and sentenced to four years behind bars, but was pardoned by President Park Geun-hye and still runs the company.

South Koreans have – to put it mildly – mixed feelings about the families that run the chaebols. They still respect the firms’ very elderly or (mostly) deceased founders who made South Korea rich; but they increasingly resent the outrageous sense of privilege enjoyed by those founders’ children and (especially) grandchildren – who are widely resented for their unearned wealth, their princely airs, their thoroughgoing corruption, and the impunity they enjoy no matter how massive their crimes.

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Koo Bon-moo, CEO of LG

The simple fact is that pretty much everybody in the South Korean government is on the chaebols’ payrolls – or wants to be. And the growing popular resentment of this grand corruption is an extremely good sign. It tells us that a people who, not so long ago, were comfortable with a degree of authoritarianism are now impatient for more democracy. People who were accustomed to class division want more equal opportunity. Though grateful to the chaebols for their contribution to South Korea’s development, they’re not happy that those chaebols have developed into arrogant aristocratic dynasties, that they use their wealth to buy off public officials, and that their domination of the economy is impeding further development.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks to the nation during a news conference at the presidential house in Seoul November 29, 2010. Lee on Monday labelled North Korea's artillery attack on a southern island a crime against humanity and said Pyongyang will pay the price for any further provocation. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon/Pool (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

How do they impede development? Well, for one thing, they make it extremely tough for aspiring entrepreneurs to make a go of it. “It’s almost impossible for a small Korean business to take on a chaebol subsidiary – and everything is a chaebol subsidiary,” wrote one observer in 2013. The chaebols’ dominance, reported the Toronto Globe and Mail last year, “is now suffocating the country’s attempt to shift gears and foster a more innovative services-oriented economy powered by small businesses.”

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Former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo

Note well: what we’re talking about here isn’t ordinary crony capitalism or the kind of revolving-door system whereby state officials often go on to become corporate execs. And vice-versa. No, it’s more as if the chaebols are a separate, permanent branch of government, whose political sway is founded partly on decades-long personal ties (Choi Tae-won’s wife is the daughter of former President Roh Tae-woo), partly on those vast slush funds that they use to grease officials’ palms, and partly on everyone’s keen awareness that the country’s fate is inextricably tied to that of the chaebols, the top ten of which account for fully 80% of South Korea’s GDP.

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Entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo

Simply put: at times it can be hard to know where the elected South Korean government ends and the unelected government of the chaebols begins. Not only do the chaebol kings hold sway over elected officials; they also wield extraordinary power over their mid- to lower-level employees – who have little leverage at contract time, because there’s not really anyplace else for them to go. (Chaebols, according to software start-up founder Ahn Cheol-soo, treat workers like “caged animals in a zoo”.) Operating in a mind-boggling range of sectors – Samsung has its fingers in everything from financial services to shipbuilding – they have the reach and resources to effortlessly crush fledgling would-be competitors in any of them.

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A graph showing Samsung’s shareholder structure

Last but not least – and this is one bizarre detail that must certainly be unique to South Korea – not even the chaebols’ boards of directors can stand up to the hegemony of the family dynasties, even if the directors hold large stakes in the firms and the latter own almost no stock at all. Indeed, a 2012 study found that eight chaebol chairmen weren’t even on their firms’ boards, meaning that they exercised enormous power without shouldering a concomitant amount of responsibility.

What this means, in practice, is that however criminal or incompetent the head of a chaebol may be, he enjoys invulnerability and unaccountability on a scale unheard of in any other developed democracy. As one South Korean business journal has put it: “At companies in advanced countries, a faulty CEO is replaced. But at South Korean conglomerates, the head of a conglomerate wields absolute authority and is not replaced no matter how grievous his mistakes are.” Or how horrendous his crimes.

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A family tree showing the descendants of Samsung founder Lee Byung Chul, color-coding their involvement in different subsidiaries and their intermarriage with members of other chaebol families

No, the situation south of the DMZ isn’t remotely comparable to that in Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom. But, thanks to the chaebols, South Korea’s business community is characterized by a thuggishness, a creepiness, a crookedness, of which the outside world is almost entirely unaware. And those who continue to prop all this up – either out of some misguided sense of loyalty to dead or dying national idols, or out of sheer personal self-interest – are, quite simply, stooges, aiding and abetting a corrupt system that’s actively preventing the emergence of an even freer, more equitable, and more prosperous South Korea.

What are the chaebols?

Corruption takes a variety of forms. In Brazil, as we’ve seen, innumerable politicians have grown rich by ripping off the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. In neighboring Argentina, a gang of Kirchner cronies diverted billions from infrastructure projects into private offshore accounts. In Gabon, President Bongo plays it simple: he treats the national treasury as his own piggy bank and buys himself mansions, yachts, limos, and planes while the average Gabonese citizen scrapes by on $12 a day.

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Seoul

Then there’s Korea. Not Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom, which is undoubtedly the most totalitarian corner of the planet. No, today we’re talking about South Korea.

“South Korea?” you ask. “Benign, prosperous, democratic, free-market South Korea, America’s steadfast ally and Ground Zero for the East Asian economic miracle? How corrupt can South Korea be?

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Samsung headquarters

This corrupt. In South Korea, as it happens, the power structure consists of two intimately interlocking parts: on the one hand, the president and other duly elected government leaders; on the other hand, a small number of huge family-run conglomerates that are uniquely South Korean in their origins, configuration, and societal significance, that have not been elected to anything by anybody, and that are, in effect, themselves the corporate equivalent of dictatorships.

These companies – among them such world-famous enterprises as Samsung, Hyundai, and LP – are known as chaebols, from the Korean words for wealth (chae) and clan (bol). They function like no other companies in the world.

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Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee was Fortune Korea’s CEO of the Decade

In English-speaking countries,” explains a Seoul professor of public administration, “there really are no business groups, but singular companies that own [their] subsidiaries 100 percent. In Europe, conglomerates are never as big as the chaebols and ownership and management [are] usually strictly divided.” A chaebol, by contrast, consists of “multiple companies with robust internal transactions, all controlled by a single, near all-powerful chairman that act[s] as both manager and the de facto owner of the entire enterprise.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the chaebols made South Korea. Over the last half century, they led the way in turning a poor agricultural backwater into an international technology center and economic powerhouse. In the process, they assumed a role in South Korean society that can be hard to explain to outsiders. The members of the families that run the chaebols are national celebrities; the companies themselves are mighty, majestic, nearly mythical colossi, looming above the everyday world of ordinary citizens in such a way that their very names almost carry a touch of magic.

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SK Group headquarters

Look at it this way: elected officials are mere mortals who come and go; the chaebol clans, like so many royal families, stay on forever, never yielding power or stepping down from Olympus.

As Iain Marlow wrote last year in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “all South Korean mothers dream of their children working at chaebol companies.” And yet even those mothers realize that the chaebols – which a generation ago were universally revered for having effected South Korea’s miraculous transformation – now pose a threat to their country’s continued growth, to its people’s economic and political freedom, and to its attempts to achieve full legitimacy and recognition on the world stage.

They realize, indeed, that these conglomerates that liberated them from poverty now – in a very real sense – are enshackling them.

How so? We’ll get around to the fascinating details tomorrow.