They Are All Korean (Plutocrats)

10 Jan

Andrew Salmon deserves credit for comparing what are seemingly apples and oranges – the Kim clan and South Korean business elites – and calling the fruit rotten.

At the head of some of this nation’s leading conglomerates, royal-style dynasties are as firmly entrenched as the Kims are in Pyongyang and they, too, are now bequeathing power to their third generations.

Seoul’s corporate dynasties certainly act in a manner befitting royalty. They inter-marry and live secretive lives in fortress-like homes guarded by bodyguard detachments.

They rarely appear in public and speak to the media even more rarely; a reporter is more likely to land an interview with a member of de facto European royalty than with a top-tier chaebol chairman. Yet unlike European royals, chaebol royalty have no fear of a muckraking media ― their advertising budgets (allegedly) buy editorial quiescence.

They also fear no law. Witness repeated crimes, ranging from financial fraud and embezzlement to kidnapping and violence, followed by no punishment, minimal punishment, or pardons.

Above all, they run their firms like fiefdoms. The chaebol’s subjects ― their shareholders ― are among the most discriminated against in the capitalist world. They have virtually no oversight, receive low dividends and are rarely granted even a glance at their august leaders, who don’t attend such vulgar events as annual general meetings.

I asked Mr. Salmon to expand on his comparison in an email:

I applaud your courage and honesty to criticize the South Korean conglomerates. However, I think you have missed an opportunity to examine their role more substantively. Could you perhaps broaden your examination to include if the conglomerates are as efficient as, or more efficient than, any possible arrangement of smaller and medium – sized firms? And, what about the charge, that the conglomerates cause structural unemployment by tying up resources beter utilized by smaller firms?

To which, Mr. Salmon replied:

Thanks for the kind words, but an in-depth examination of chaebol vs SME business structures is well beyond the bounds of a 850-word column.

The broad point I was attempting to make was that the chaebol leadership have a considerable number of things in common with the Kim Dynasty in Pyongyang, and indeed, the erstwhile Yi Dynasty in Seoul.

That’s unfortunate, of course. I disagree with another point Mr. Salmon makes, that the conglomerates are successful, or that the Kim regime has failed. It’s entirely possible for the conglomerates could enrich themselves at the expense of their employees and the country as a whole. or, that the conglomerates could in the future become unprofitable and use their political clout to frustrate reform. And, it should be noted, the North Korean regime still survives, even if it’s at a horrible cost in lives and opportunity.

I’m glad someone made the point at least.


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