BEIJING – Back in 2006, after Chung Mong-koo, chairman of Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and son of its founder, was arrested amid one of South Korea’s recurring corruption scandals, I called a friend in the company’s public relations office. He answered in a breathless panic. Without Chung in the driver’s seat, he assured me, the management of South Korea’s largest automaker would be adrift.
At the time, I saw his warning as spin, an attempt to sway the South Korean government to back off Chung. (If so, it worked: Chung was pardoned two years later.) But in my 20 years watching South Korea’s family-run business groups, known as “chaebol,” I’ve come to realize my friend was telling the truth.
The much-maligned conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy may be facing investigations, pressure from foreign shareholders and unprecedented public anger. But unless the culture that binds management, investors and other stakeholders to South Korea’s corporate system changes dramatically, the chaebol will almost certainly survive.
Even the most recent blow to the chaebol — the planned indictment of Samsung family scion Lee Jae-yong for alleged bribery — probably won’t usher in the changes it should. Lee had sought to modernize the Samsung Group’s archaic corporate culture, but instead became embroiled in the massive corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of the country’s president, Park Geun-hye. Critics of the chaebol are hoping a conviction will end Lee’s career, force a management overhaul at Samsung, South Korea’s most important business house, and teach other chaebol bosses a lesson.
In fact, it’s just as likely to prove a fleeting embarrassment. The chaebol have outlasted pressures that would easily have upended companies in other countries. Though they often trade at valuations lower than their rivals — shares of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. trade at a lower price-earnings ratio than Apple Inc.’s, while Hyundai Motor’s are cheaper than those of Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. — South Korean shareholders rarely challenge management. Public fury over the boorish behavior of chaebol heirs hasn’t led to any effective efforts to rein them in or reduce the influence of founder-families over management.
Presidents routinely pardon chaebol bosses found guilty of assorted crimes and allow them to return to their old jobs as if nothing had ever happened. Lee’s powerful father, Lee Kun-hee, himself resigned from Samsung after being indicted for tax evasion in 2008, only to be pardoned and restored to a chairmanship post.
Partly this has to do with the companies’ outsized influence within the South Korean economy; the combined revenues of the five largest chaebol were equivalent to 58 percent of South Korea’s GDP in 2015. Government officials, who regularly pay lip service to the need for reform, worry that destabilizing the chaebol will undermine an already struggling economy.
Yet a lack of political will doesn’t entirely explain the chaebol’s endurance. For that, we need to wander into the somewhat dangerous territory of culture.
I’ve long resisted cultural explanations for economic outcomes. But in the case of the chaebol, the link seems unavoidable. Confucianism still exerts strong influence in South Korea, and that philosophy, especially the form that took hold there in the 15th century, stresses loyalty to authority. At the chaebol, reverence for the “emperor” translates into obedience to company founders and their families, who are treated like royalty.
In certain chaebol, employees are actively indoctrinated in the wonders of the company’s founding clan. I’ve known Samsung employees who would praise the brilliance of Lee Kun-hee the way the North Korean media lauds dictator Kim Jong Un. What seems to happen is that the top family-executive at a chaebol, much like an imperial ruler, becomes a point of focus and loyalty for managers who may otherwise have competing interests. Only he (and it’s almost always “he”) can arbitrate between those demands and bring a sense of larger mission to an unwieldy conglomerate.
Relationships in business are also critically important in South Korea (as they are throughout Asia). So shareholders, bankers and bureaucrats, who often have long-standing connections to chaebol management, are naturally reluctant to rock the boat. Such ties help explain why, for instance, U.S. hedge fund Elliott Associates LP failed to rally shareholder support against a Samsung merger that solidified Lee Jae-yong’s control over the group. (Prosecutors allege that Lee also bribed the government to win support from the national pension fund for the merger.)
On paper, more can and is being done to bust up the chaebol. Regulators can force a true unwinding of the complex cross-shareholdings that permit families to dominate chaebol management. Legislators can even the playing field for startups and smaller companies, who are typically squeezed out by the conglomerates and their traditional suppliers. Certainly the public seems fed up with the tangle of collusion between politics and big business in South Korea. But the chaebol won’t vanish until those who manage, own and finance them accept that South Korea is better off without them.
Michael Schuman is a journalist based in Beijing and author of “Confucius: And the World He Created.”
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