Monday, January 23, 2012

If You Think Malaysia Is Bad, Read This!

The sleaze that shames Seoul
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Quite a contrast, aren't they, the two Koreas? One is a weird, weepy-creepy, nasty dynastic dinosaur. The other is ultra-modern, hi-tech, dynamic and vibrant: a stunning success story. So much so that in November the Economist headlined a feature on South Korea: "What do you do when you reach the top?" [1] (Their answer: Tweak a few things here and there.)

Top of what, though? Exports are one thing, but virtue is another. Those of us who enthuse and root for South Korea have a problem. Amid all the glitter, there are some bits that stink.

I keep a running file on Korea called "Corpulent Governance" (geddit?). It's always full, sad to say. Right now, it's

overflowing. So here are some tales to make you hold your nose - or retch, or weep. It gives me no pleasure to write thus, but this stuff has to be faced up to.

First up, the chaebol (conglomerates). Many top Korean companies, including household names, are run by crooks. That's not a libel; it's a fact. The chairmen of Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and Hanwha - the first, second, third and tenth largest business groups - have all been convicted of crimes in Korean courts of law. And three of them (guess the exception) have spent time behind bars - though only serving a fraction of their supposed sentences.

Usually it's financial, but not always. In 2007 Kim Seung-youn, the chairman of Hanwha - founded as Korea Explosives, but now inter alia Korea's second largest non-bank financial group, big in insurance - hired goons to beat up some guys who got in a fight with his son; even wielding a metal bar himself. [2]

Sentenced to 18 months, Kim pleaded ill-health and was out in no time. The Korea Times recently called Kim a "Dragon CEO" (he was born in 1952), noting wryly that the mythical beast may remind people of this event. [3] No one seems to care.

Unbelievably, this was the man whom last year South Korea chose as a leading lobbyist in its (successful) bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. As the Financial Times commented: "Let's hope he has some more gentle means of persuasion at his disposal than steel pipes." [4] Seoul must have decided it needed to send a heavy hitter, if you'll pardon the expression.

Another such thug is at least behind bars where he belongs. Chey Chul-won - a cousin of SK chairman Chey Tae-won, and former CEO of SK's logistics affiliate, the aptly named Might & Main (M&M) - received an 18-month jail sentence last February for beating a laid-off truck driver with a baseball bat.

Yoo Hong-joon had staged a one-man protest for months outside group headquarters in Seoul. One day Chey called him in, hit him repeatedly with other executives present, and then threw checks at him as "compensation". [5] Charming.

In his defense, Chey claimed that what he did was no worse than goes on in the army every day. (South Korea still has universal male conscription.) It turned out he'd earlier threatened a woman living in the apartment below his - again with a baseball bat, and with three club-wielding goons in tow - after she complained about "extreme" noise from upstairs. Police were called, but laid no charges. Afraid, the woman and her family moved out, sharpish. [6]

But more often, as I said, it's money. Take the three largest chaebol. Though successful as businesses, all are marred by financial malpractice - but have only had their wrists slapped.

Since the old Hyundai group broke up, Hyundai Motor is the number two conglomerate. It has grown to become the world's fifth largest car-maker, led by Chung Mong-koo - who in 2006 spent two months in jail prior to conviction in 2007 for embezzling US$100 million to create slush funds. Sentenced to three years, he never went back inside; a judge ruled that the economy needed him. And in 2009 he got a special pardon from President Lee Myung-bak. [7] Read more.

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