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.

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.