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.

South Korea: tame chaebol reform, or none at all?

 

Moon Jae-in

In South Korea these days, the billion-dollar question is this: is the administration of President Moon Jae-in serious about reforming the systematic corruption that’s been a national institution ever since Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and the other so-called “chaebols” began dominating its economy?

The history of chaebol criminality – which has largely taken the form of bribes to top government officials – goes back to the years following the Korean War. For decades, the South Korean public has increasingly cried out for reform. President Moon, who took office last year after his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office on corruption charges, has called chaebol corruption a “deep-rooted evil.”

But does he mean it? Or are the stiff sentences handed down in August to Moon’s crooked predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and her friend and partner in crime, Choi Soon-sil, a fluke?

Park Geun-hye

Then, of course, there’s the other, depressingly familiar, possibility: will Park and Choi, like their fellow crook, Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee), and a raft of convicted CEO-felons and presidents before him, end up being let out of jail on some technicality that leaves the entire country even more cynical about their judiciary’s dedication to equality before the law?

Kim Sang-jo

Well, so far Park and Choi remain behind bars. And only days after their conviction was affirmed – and their sentences enhanced – by a high court, South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission (FTC) proposed new rules to govern the chaebols. The head of the FTC, Kim Sang-jo, who has acquired the nickname “the chaebol sniper,” has declared his determination to take on the ownership strucures of the two largest chaebols, Samsung and Hyundai.

Bruce Lee of Zebra Management

An abiding problem at these and other conglomerates has been that the families that founded them still rule them like kings, routinely making sweeping managerial decisions while ignoring the input of shareholders. Kim’s stated goal is to diminish the power of those families, whose grip on their conglomerates well exceeds their relative value of their ownership shares in those conglomerates.

How to address that problem? Well, under current regulations, a chaebol must own at least 20% of its listed subsidiaries and 40% of unlisted units. Kim’s new rules would raise those figures to 30% and 50% respectively.

Robyn Mak

That’s not all. Members of a chaebol’s founding family would not be allowed to have more than 15% of the voting rights in a listed affiliate of that chaebol. Other new rules would also limit the power of corporate kingpins to pull off mergers or spin off subsidiaries without shareholder support. They would also clamp down on circular shareholdings and other intra-conglomerate machinations and intensify disclosure requirements.

Yet in the eyes of serious observers, the commission’s proposed changes are too little, too late. “I would give 20 points out of 100, a basic score, to what the Moon government has done for corporate governance reform,” Bruce Lee of Seoul-based Zebra Investment Management told Bloomberg News.

Commentator Robyn Mak called the proposed new regulations “the first rewrite of antitrust rules in nearly four decades,” but added that given the slow growth of South Korea’s economy, the chaebols are in the catbird seat. “That means corporate governance reform probably will wind up weaker than originally anticipated.”

Indeed, modest though Kim’s proposed changes are, “Moon will struggle,” maintained Mak, “to gain political support to enact some of the new ideas.” We’ll keep abreast of developments.

Lee is free – and South Korean reform is dead

We’ve been writing about Samsung since September 2016, when we explained the distinctively South Korean type of family-run corporate conglomerate known as the chaebol. “The simple fact,” we noted, “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.”

Park Geun-hye

A couple of months later we reported on charges that South Korea’s then President, Park Geun-hye, had helped a friend, Choi Soon-sil, extort huge sums of money from several of the chaebols. The largest chaebol, Samsung, which accounts for some 17% of South Korea’s economy, gave Choi over $15 million. By December 2016, the official probe into this corruption uncovered that the sum extracted from Samsung was closer to $20 million. In return, President Park allowed the merger of two Samsung entities.

Lee Jae-yong (aka Jay Y. Lee)

In January of last year came the news that prosecutors had barred Lee Jae-yong – the de facto head of Samsung, grandson of its founder, Lee Byung-chul, son of its official chairman, Lee Kun-Hee (who stepped down from day-to-day management, but did not relinquish his title, after a 2014 heart attack), and arguably the most powerful man in South Korea – from leaving the country. In February Lee (who in the West goes by the name Jay Y. Lee) was arrested; in March, Park was removed from office.

Her replacement, Moon Jae-in, promised to curb the power of the chaebols, whose domination of the nation’s economy has thwarted new business development, whose cozy ties to government leaders have caused widespread suspicion and resentment, and whose leaders’ ability to escape punishment for large-scale corruption has made them seem to be above the law.

Moon Jae-in

Lee’s trial began in March. Dubbed “the trial of the century” in South Korea, it involved five charges: bribery (maximum possible sentence: five years), embezzlement (eight years) perjury (ten years), concealing criminal proceeds (five years), and hiding assets abroad (life). Prosecutors asked for a sentence of twelve years. In August, after five months of testimony, Lee was found guilty of all five charges and sentenced to five years in prison. He was thereupon “sent to a prison for white collar criminals in Uijeongbu.”

Then, last month, came a startling development. Lee, who had appealed his sentence, was taken from his prison cell and transported to the Seoul High Court. There, presiding senior judge Cheong Hyung-sik informed him that he was to be released immediately and would be on probation for four years.

Lee in handcuffs

Cheong – who, technically speaking, had not reversed or commuted Lee’s sentence but cut it in half and then suspended it – maintained that Lee’s only real offense was to have succumbed understandably to inordinate pressure exerted on him by Park Geun-hye while she was serving as President. “Park threatened Samsung Electronics executives,” claimed the judge. “The defendant provided a bribe, knowing it was bribery…but was unable to refuse.” Not a small number of South Koreans regarded this as a thoroughly absurd argument. 

More on Thursday.

South Korea kicks out Samsung’s pet prez

Park Geun-hye

For the last few months, we’ve been following the growing South Korean corruption scandal that involves the Samsung Corporation, President Park Geun-hye, and the President’s best friend Choi Soon-sil. In a country where corruption scandals involving ties between top political leaders and the powerful chaebol – the immense, family-controlled conglomerates that are the pillars of the nation’s economy – are a frequent occurrence, the present scandal was the biggest ever.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court

On Friday, that scandal came to a climax as the eight justices on the country’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to remove Park Geun-hye from the office of the presidency for committing acts that “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” The court’s move, which followed the suspension of Park’s powers in December when the national legislature voted for impeachment, and which took effect immediately, was without precedent in South Korean political history.

Choi Soon-sil in police custody

The unseating of Park caused joy in some quarters and fury in others. A protest outside the courthouse by supporters of Park turned violent, with two protesters dying in the melee. As for Park, now that she no longer enjoys the immunity from prosecution that comes with being president, she is likely to be tried on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and abuse of power for having extorted millions of dollars from Samsung and other firms in collaboration with her lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil.

Lee Jae-yong

Park’s ouster on Friday followed the arrest, on February 17, of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, and the announcement on February 28 that prosecutors would be indicting Lee “on charges of bribery and four other offenses.” As Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times, “Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, has been tainted by corruption before. But the company has been considered too important to the economy for any of its top leaders to spend time behind bars — until now. The jailing of Mr. Lee, who is facing trial, is another potent sign that the old order is not holding.”

The Constitutional Court’s ruling marked a victory for honest government and above-board business practices. As Choe noted, the constitutional orderliness of the process also demonstrated how how far South Korean democracy has come in the last half-century. Ahn Byong-jin of Seoul’s Kyung Hee University told the Times that “the curtain is finally drawing on the authoritarian political and economic order that has dominated South Korea for decades.”

Park’s supporters clash with police

The verdict may also, alas, turn out to have a serious downside. To quote Choe, Park’s departure “is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition, whose leaders want more engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major confrontation in the region. They say they will re-examine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, which has sounded alarms about the growing American military footprint in Asia.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

In other words, South Korea, which in recent years has been a reliable bulwark of democracy in the region, may end up being led by people who are eager to appease Kim Jong-un and Beijing and to distance themselves from the U.S. and other democratic allies. The election to replace Park must take place within sixty days; in the meantime, an ally of Park’s, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will serve as acting president. According to the Times, the Trump government “is rushing a missile defense system to South Korea so that it can be in place before the election.”

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.

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.

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.

hwang_kyoahn
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.