Surprise! Another chaebol brat.

When South Koreans hear the word “chaebol,” which refers to the massive, family-run conglomerates that dominate their economy, they think about power, money, and corruption. They also think about the children of the chaebol CEOs, those princes and princesses who – not to overgeneralize – are often notoriously spoiled and inclined to abuse underlings.

Heather Cho

Just last week we recalled the infamous “nut rage” case of 2014, when Heather Cho, daughter of the chairman of the Hanjin Group, ordered a Korean Air flight (Hanjin owns the airline) back to the gate at JFK because she’d been served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a dish. This is only one of many such episodes that, for many ordinary South Korean citizens, have underscored the excessive degree of privilege that, in their view, poisons the chaebol dynasties.

On November 24 came another such story. According to the Straits Times, the ten-year-old daughter of Bang Jung-oh, president of the cable network TV Chosun, had been recorded some weeks earlier “verbally attacking and threatening” her chauffeur, a man in his fifties.

Apparently the driver had asked her to sit down. Apparently she refused. And apparently he insisted. Whereupon she said: “I told you I don’t want to….Why should I sit down? This is my car, not yours!” The driver replied by telling her to fire him; in response, she is reported to have asked (and let’s just preface this by saying that the English translation here could be a bit more felicitous): “Do you think I would get embarrassed? I’m not such a person who freaks out with this.” She went on to call her driver “a crippled guy – crippled without arms, legs, face, ears and mouth…especially devoid of mouth and ears….You are insane.”

Bang Jung-oh

Just wondering: do bratty American ten-year-olds come up with such bizarre insults? Or is this sort of thing unique to South Korea?

At some point the girl also told the driver, “I will speak to my mum today…in order to make you lose your job.” Then there was this: “You are fired! You are really insane.” And here’s another patch of awkward translation: “Hey, I’m speaking to you with good words. Perhaps I’m the only person who treats you like this.”

Just a bit more. “Hey, your parents taught you wrong,” she taunted. “All of your family members taught you wrong.” And here’s the coup de grace: “I really hate you. I want you to die. It’s my wish.” Charming child.


In fact, the chauffeur did end up being fired. In October. Without any explanation.

Then, in November, MBC TV released a recording of the girl’s rant. The worm turned. Her father – who, by the way, is the younger son of Bang Sang-hoon, president of South Korea’s largest daily, Chosun Ilbo – not only apologized to the chauffeur but announced his resignation.

So he’s out of a job. No word as to whether the chauffeur found new employment. Let’s just hope the child was appropriately punished and taught something about respect. We’re not betting on that one, though.

“Chaebol sniper” or chaebol masseur?

 

Kim Sang-jo

Last January, the Economist offered an optimistic forecast of the future of South Korea’s economy under Kim Sang-jo, that country’s newly appointed antitrust czar. Kim’s task, during his three-year term, was to “tame the chaebol,” those massive, family-run corporate conglomerates that were the engines of South Korean economic growth after since the Korean War but that in recently decades have increasingly served as a hindrance to further growth – and, in particular, to the establishment and successful development of small businesses. (The Korean language even has a word – gapjil – for the way in which the chaebol bully more modest-sized enterprises.) Moreover, the chaebols, which were once universally admired for having led South Korea out of Third World status, are now more and more the objects of public resentment because of their top leaders’ chronic corruption and impunity.

Moon Jae-in

At the time of his appointment, Kim, a former activist for the rights of shareholders, enjoyed the strong backing of President Moon Jae-in as well as of the great majority of his countrymen, who refer to him as the “chaebol sniper.” All these months later, has he lived up to that nickname? How much, exactly, has he accomplished?

For a close reader, the article in the Economist contained a few hints that Kim might, in fact, prove to be something less than a bull in the chaebols’ china shops. “The sniper,” we read, “would rather his targets surrender willingly and is encouraging ‘voluntary’ reform.” Some sniper! Indeed, the Economist admitted that some critics of the chaebols “carp that Mr Kim now seems to be more chaebol sympathiser than sniper,” though the Economist was quick to assure us that this view of Kim was “unfair.”

Hanjin Group headquarters, Seoul

Fast forward five months. Kim, reported the Korean media, was accusing the Hanjin Group, the parent company of Korean Air, of “breaching market rules.” At a press conference marking the end of his first year on the job, the “chaebol sniper” lamented the standard practice by chaebols of doing business with, say, real-estate firms and ad agencies that are affiliated with them rather than dealing with independently owned firms in those same sectors. “I honestly ask conglomerates,” said Kim, “to sincerely review if it necessarily needs these businesses that are owned solely by their controlling families.”

Wow, tough talk!

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Kim said his agency had “tried to work on encouraging conglomerates to change their…management practices.” Tried? Encouraging? “We’re seeing positive changes,” he said, but “we still have a long way to go.” He said he regretted “not being able to bring changes that the public can actually feel,” and admitted that some observers might feel that his achievements thus far had fallen “short of expectations.”

No kidding. Is this a sniper or a masseur?