A new Moon

Moon Jae-in

It’s a new year – and a new Moon Jae-in. Before he became president of South Korea, Moon referred to the chaebols – those hugely successful but profoundly corrupt and immensely powerful family-run conglomerates that dominate that country’s economy – as a “deep-rooted evil.” When Moon rose to the presidency in May 2017, he promised a serious campaign of chaebol reform. Yes, several of his predecessors had made similar promises, but Moon said his promises were for real. He appointed a so-called “chaebol sniper,” one Kim Sang-jo, whom he tasked with bringing the chaebols to heel.

Kim Sang-jo

In the more than year and a half since his inauguration, however, the South Korean people have seen very little in the way of reform. Once again, the promises have proven empty. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, Kim, in a recent interview, presented himself not as an anti-chaebol warrior but as a “reasonable reformist” who respects the chaebols and, far from cutting them down to size, seeks to render them competitive through “evolutionary reform.”

Jay Y. Lee, top dog at Samsung

Now Moon, too, is singing a new tune. As the Korea Times reported on January 6, “the President appears to be expanding communication channels to win backing from the country’s leading industrial conglomerates.” According to a spoksman for Moon, the President planned to meet with chaebol leaders some time in January and would ask them “to hire more and spend more,” in exchange for which his government would provide increased “tax benefits and administrative support.” Partly in order to win votes from younger members of the electorate who are in the job market, according to top government officials, Moon needs “to reach out his hands to Samsung, LG, SK and Hyundai,” the country’s “top four family-controlled businesses.”

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo

That’s quite an about-face, even by high-stakes political standards. The man who vowed to be an anti-chaebol crusader is now going to the chaebols, hat in hand, and begging them for what is essentially a political favor – and, in response, offering to cut their taxes. In other words, it’s back to business as usual in South Korea, with the head of state and the chaebol kings scratching each other’s backs.

Already, reported the Times, “chief presidential policy chief Kim Soo-hyun met with senior executives at Samsung, LG and SK in a Seoul hotel late last year” in order to set the groundwork for the shift in approach. The question, it seems, is not whether Moon plans to woo the chaebol bosses; it is how the bosses will respond to his bootlicking.

LG Group headquarters

You see, they’re not all that happy with Moon, partly because of the aggressive anti-chaebol rhetoric with which he started his administration, and partly because his hike in the minimum wage has blunted their competitiveness abroad. It’s predicted that South Korean economy will grow only 2.5 percent this year, and the chaebols put a lot of blame for that at Moon’s feet.

The worm, then, has turned. The sometime chaebol slayer has become a servile brownnoser, trucking to the big boys at the “big four” – Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and SK – and hoping that they’ll respond positively to his kowtowing.

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.

park
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.