South Korea’s latest actions against foreign internet giants and local upstarts are drawing parallels with recent crackdowns in China. In reality there’s little to suggest that Seoul has the muscle to hit out at big companies, or the desire to flex it.
Both Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google were on the receiving end of South Korea’s legislative wrath last month, thanks to a new anti-monopoly law that prohibits companies from forcing software developers to use the payment platforms tied to their app stores. Users should be given a choice, lawmakers decreed. (A similar debate was playing out in a U.S. court.) Separately, Google was also recently hit with a $177 million fine for preventing device makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. from developing or modifying versions of the U.S. company’s ubiquitous Android operating system.
Western behemoths aren’t the only ones copping it. Kakao Corp. and Naver Corp., the nation’s largest internet and messaging providers, have been pilloried by lawmakers, antitrust regulators and financial authorities over a range of supposed sins, including their market dominance, share-listing valuations and fintech product offerings. While their products are ubiquitous in Korean society, the businesses behind them lack the size and power enjoyed by counterparts in China or even the U.S., which have also been under fire.
Yet actual allegations and legal charges have been scant, leaving companies to attempt to clear their names in the court of public opinion.One such executive who succumbed to pressure is Brian Kim, founder of Kakao and a symbol of South Korea’s new wave of technology leaders who eschew traditional hardware businesses for the high-growth areas of software, internet and social media. On Tuesday, he pledged 300 billion won ($256 million) to help small merchants while considering dipping out of sectors that compete with mom-and-pop shops. “The recent criticism is a powerful alarm bell for Kakao,” Kim wrote in a statement, which included contrite buzzwords like “social responsibility” and “fundamental changes.”
China watchers will be familiar with the script. In April, e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. wrote that the company “would not have achieved our growth without sound government regulation and service.” It had just been handed a $2.8 billion antitrust fine, while the shock from the canceled initial public offering of its fintech affiliate Ant Group Co. six months prior still reverberated. Providers of education, games, ride-hailing and social-media have all been in the government’s crosshairs over the past six month as President Xi Jinping brings the private sector to heel under the mantra of “common prosperity,” which aims to tackle inequality across the country. To show they’re on board, and get into Beijing’s good graces, companies and individuals have lined up to give more than $35 billion to charity and support small businesses.
There appears to be no similar overarching social goal in South Korea. But there is a presidential election coming in March, with the primary season in full swing. And lawmakers are eager to grab headlines for standing up for the little guy, as they’re wont to do in any democracy. Waves of socialist fervor roll in from time to time in South Korea, a country dominated by a few powerful businesses.
But compared with the reach of chaebol, Naver, Kakao and affiliates like KakaoBank Corp. are mere minnows. Samsung Electronics’ $201 billion in revenue last year was more than double nearest rival Hyundai Motor Co., ahead of conglomerate SK Inc. and LG Electronics. Two of those, Samsung and LG, stand to be major beneficiaries of this harsher stance on overseas technology giants.
It’s not like Seoul had been in a hurry to tame the big names, anyway. It seems like a mighty coincidence that the free-choice law, which passed in August, comes right as Google was preparing to end a fee exemption for the country which had stood for years, meaning that it would start charging the same 30% commission on apps levied elsewhere. And just two weeks after the National Assembly signed off, a long-standing dispute between Epic Games Inc., known best for its Fortnite titles, and Apple came to a head in the U.S. In that case, a federal judge ruled that the iPhone maker had engaged in anti-competitive conduct by preventing consumers from using external payment methods for mobile apps.
But criticizing young companies with fast growth and valuations that seem unassailable is much easier than tackling entrenched interests with deep political connections. Jay Y. Lee looked to be the poster child for South Korea’s crackdown on the powerful when the scion of the Samsung empire was found guilty of bribery, but he walked out of jail a year early after being granted parole last month. (Then-President Park Geun-hye was impeached and imprisoned as part of the same investigation.)
The simple truth is that regulators and legislators haven’t taken on big names the way Xi has, nor have they had anywhere near the same impact. Kakao’s market value topped out at $65 billion before all the rancor brought the stock tumbling 37%. By contrast, Alibaba had been worth close to $860 billion, with Beijing’s crackdown helping slice that in half.
Xi’s China tends to be far less lenient, and far more willing to tackle the biggest of names, no matter how fast they’re growing or what innovations they bring. If anything, what Seoul’s crackdown shows is just how different South Korea is than China, and maybe that’s something the country should embrace.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.
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