What the hell is wrong with the chaebols?

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

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

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

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

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

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

LG headquarters, Seoul

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

Daewoo headquarters, Seoul

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