Another chaebol tale

In what country do the heads of the top half dozen or so corporations get arrested for corruption, found guilty, sent to prison, and then pardoned more often than in South Korea? The answer must be: none.

Chey Tae-won

Case in point: Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Group, one of the half dozen largest of South Korea’s chaebols, the family-run conglomerates that dominate that country’s economy and whose leaders are part of an intricate network of power that ties them inextricably to the people at the very highest levels of government. In 1988, as if to demonstrate this high-level intimacy, Chey, who was the nephew of SK’s founder, married Soh Yeong Roh, the daughter of South Korea’s then president, Roh Tae-woo. The wedding took place at the Blue House, Seoul’s answer to the White House.

Five years later, in 1993, Chey was found guilty in a California court of breaking U.S. money laundering laws and of “smurfing,” which means “breaking up deposits into smaller amounts to avoid reporting cash transactions of $10,000 or more as required by law.”

Roh Moo-hyun

That was just the start. Ten years later, on February 23, 2003, Chey was arrested in South Korea on charges of insider trading. The arrest came only days before the inauguration of President Roh Moo Hyun, who, like many other South Korean presidents before and after, had declared his intention to reform the chaebols – which, while being credited with turning South Korea from a Third World country to a leading economic powerhouse, are also cesspools of high-level corruption. Among the 2003 charges against Chey was that he had plotted to increase his ownership share in SK by nefarious means and thereby to solidify his control of the conglomerate, which at the time consisted of no fewer than 58 separate firms. That June, after prosecutors uncovered $1.3 billion in accounting irregularities, Chey was sentenced to three years in prison.

Soh Yeong Roh


Once a crook, always a crook. In January 2012, Chey was indicted for embezzling over $40 million, which he sunk into personal investments. A year later, having meanwhile resigned as chairman of SK Group (while remaining chairman of the conglomerate’s holding company, SK Holdings), he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison. “The ruling,”
reported Yahoo News, “comes as South Koreans demand a tougher stance on crimes committed by bosses of chaebol.” The Seoul court that sent him to jail described his case as an example of how chaebol bosses “treat company assets as personal property.”

Park Geun-hye

In any event, that “tougher stance” against the chaebols didn’t last long. It never does. President Park Geun-hye – who had passionately vowed to crack down on chaebol corruption, but who is now in prison herself for involvement in chaebol corruption – pardoned him in August 2015. In March of last year, prosecutors questioned Chey, who in the interim had resumed chairmanship of the SK Group, as part of their investigation into President Park.

“To many investors,” the Seoul Herald commented a couple of years ago, Chey “seems to embody what’s wrong with Korea’s chaebol-controlling families.” Well, South Koreans are very big on two things: family and continuity. It could be argued that Chey, by retaining the respect of his clan and hanging on to control of SK no matter how many terms he serves behind bars, embodies those values, too.

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.

Facing the music in South Korea

rhee_syng-man_in_1956
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.

Corruption at the chaebols

Yesterday we began looking at the chaebols, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the South Korean business world. Here’s a quick overview of three of the very largest chaebols. See if you notice any running themes:

  • lee_kun_hee
    Lee Kun-hee

    Samsung – the largest of all the chaebols, making up no less than 17% of the South Korean economy – is chaired by Lee Kun-hee, son of the firm’s founder. Lee resigned in 2008 after being caught with a secret slush fund that he used to bribe government officials, but was pardoned by President Lee Myung-bak and promptly resumed his chairmanship. He continues to stay in office despite a book, published in 2010, that describes in detail how he stole about $9 billion of Samsung’s money.

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
Chung Mong-koo
  • Hyundai is another of the so-called “Big Four” chaebols. Its chairman, Chung Mong-koo, son of the firm’s founder, was convicted in 2007 of embezzling $100 million to bribe government officials, but he was pardoned by Lee Myung-bak and remained in office.

  • choi
    Choi Tae-won

    Yet another one of the “Big Four,” SK Group, is chaired by Choi Tae-won, son of the group’s founder. In 2013, Choi was found guilty of embezzling over $40 million and sentenced to four years behind bars, but was pardoned by President Park Geun-hye and still runs the company.

South Koreans have – to put it mildly – mixed feelings about the families that run the chaebols. They still respect the firms’ very elderly or (mostly) deceased founders who made South Korea rich; but they increasingly resent the outrageous sense of privilege enjoyed by those founders’ children and (especially) grandchildren – who are widely resented for their unearned wealth, their princely airs, their thoroughgoing corruption, and the impunity they enjoy no matter how massive their crimes.

koo-bon-moo
Koo Bon-moo, CEO of LG

The simple fact is that pretty much everybody in the South Korean government is on the chaebols’ payrolls – or wants to be. And the growing popular resentment of this grand corruption is an extremely good sign. It tells us that a people who, not so long ago, were comfortable with a degree of authoritarianism are now impatient for more democracy. People who were accustomed to class division want more equal opportunity. Though grateful to the chaebols for their contribution to South Korea’s development, they’re not happy that those chaebols have developed into arrogant aristocratic dynasties, that they use their wealth to buy off public officials, and that their domination of the economy is impeding further development.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks to the nation during a news conference at the presidential house in Seoul November 29, 2010. Lee on Monday labelled North Korea's artillery attack on a southern island a crime against humanity and said Pyongyang will pay the price for any further provocation. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon/Pool (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

How do they impede development? Well, for one thing, they make it extremely tough for aspiring entrepreneurs to make a go of it. “It’s almost impossible for a small Korean business to take on a chaebol subsidiary – and everything is a chaebol subsidiary,” wrote one observer in 2013. The chaebols’ dominance, reported the Toronto Globe and Mail last year, “is now suffocating the country’s attempt to shift gears and foster a more innovative services-oriented economy powered by small businesses.”

roh_tae-woo_
Former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo

Note well: what we’re talking about here isn’t ordinary crony capitalism or the kind of revolving-door system whereby state officials often go on to become corporate execs. And vice-versa. No, it’s more as if the chaebols are a separate, permanent branch of government, whose political sway is founded partly on decades-long personal ties (Choi Tae-won’s wife is the daughter of former President Roh Tae-woo), partly on those vast slush funds that they use to grease officials’ palms, and partly on everyone’s keen awareness that the country’s fate is inextricably tied to that of the chaebols, the top ten of which account for fully 80% of South Korea’s GDP.

ahn_cheol
Entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo

Simply put: at times it can be hard to know where the elected South Korean government ends and the unelected government of the chaebols begins. Not only do the chaebol kings hold sway over elected officials; they also wield extraordinary power over their mid- to lower-level employees – who have little leverage at contract time, because there’s not really anyplace else for them to go. (Chaebols, according to software start-up founder Ahn Cheol-soo, treat workers like “caged animals in a zoo”.) Operating in a mind-boggling range of sectors – Samsung has its fingers in everything from financial services to shipbuilding – they have the reach and resources to effortlessly crush fledgling would-be competitors in any of them.

samsung_shareholders_citiaug12
A graph showing Samsung’s shareholder structure

Last but not least – and this is one bizarre detail that must certainly be unique to South Korea – not even the chaebols’ boards of directors can stand up to the hegemony of the family dynasties, even if the directors hold large stakes in the firms and the latter own almost no stock at all. Indeed, a 2012 study found that eight chaebol chairmen weren’t even on their firms’ boards, meaning that they exercised enormous power without shouldering a concomitant amount of responsibility.

What this means, in practice, is that however criminal or incompetent the head of a chaebol may be, he enjoys invulnerability and unaccountability on a scale unheard of in any other developed democracy. As one South Korean business journal has put it: “At companies in advanced countries, a faulty CEO is replaced. But at South Korean conglomerates, the head of a conglomerate wields absolute authority and is not replaced no matter how grievous his mistakes are.” Or how horrendous his crimes.

samsung-family-tree-korean
A family tree showing the descendants of Samsung founder Lee Byung Chul, color-coding their involvement in different subsidiaries and their intermarriage with members of other chaebol families

No, the situation south of the DMZ isn’t remotely comparable to that in Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom. But, thanks to the chaebols, South Korea’s business community is characterized by a thuggishness, a creepiness, a crookedness, of which the outside world is almost entirely unaware. And those who continue to prop all this up – either out of some misguided sense of loyalty to dead or dying national idols, or out of sheer personal self-interest – are, quite simply, stooges, aiding and abetting a corrupt system that’s actively preventing the emergence of an even freer, more equitable, and more prosperous South Korea.