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.