[Column] The freedom of Yoon Suk-yeol and Korea’s chaebols

Posted on : 2022-06-08 17:11 KST Modified on : 2022-06-08 17:11 KST
Perhaps the chaebols believe they’re back on top of the world — or maybe they just assume there’s nothing money can’t buy
Samsung Electronics Vice President Lee Jae-yong departs from the Seoul Gimpo Business Aviation Center on June 7 for a trip to Europe. (Yonhap News)
Samsung Electronics Vice President Lee Jae-yong departs from the Seoul Gimpo Business Aviation Center on June 7 for a trip to Europe. (Yonhap News)
Park Hyun
Park Hyun

By Park Hyun, editorial writer

It’s great to see how candid Shinsegae Group Vice Chairperson Chung Yong-jin is.

While most members of the families that rule South Korea’s chaebol conglomerates avoid sharing their thoughts publicly, he’s different. He doesn’t have a shred of a filter when it comes to sharing his thoughts on social media. Early on in my career as a reporter, when I was on the business beat, his social media posts offered a window into the chaebol world.

I was curious to see what the chaebols were thinking after Yoon Suk-yeol’s election as president, and Chung did not disappoint. After being invited to the inauguration, he shared a picture on Instagram showing Yoon delivering his inaugural speech against a bright blue sky.

Accompanying it was a message that read, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Rainbow!!” Chung seemed to have been stirred by the word “freedom,” which was mentioned no fewer than 35 times in Yoon’s address.

A somewhat more provocative message was posted to his account on Thursday, June 2, shortly after the local election results were announced.

On the surface, it simply read, “A great day for winning at baseball. Victory!!” With it was a hashtag with Korean characters meaning “destroy.”

Seeing all the replies cheering him on for “bashing communism,” I could clearly see that it was meant to send an anti-communist message. (The words for “ball” and “communism” are homophones in Korean.) I noticed one reply in particular that said, “Now that there’s a new administration, you can #destroytheball [eradicate communism] all you want, Mr. Vice Chairman.”

Chung had previously pledged to avoid making any more overt anti-communist statements after his repeated remarks early this year led to his company’s share prices tumbling. Perhaps he was so overjoyed by the conservatives’ election win that he couldn’t contain himself.

In what came across as a coordinated move, four of South Korea’s chaebol groups made surprise announcements of large-scale investment plans on May 25. Ordinarily, those kinds of announcements happen when the president is meeting with chaebol leaders, or some similar situation. There hadn’t been any events like that, or any prior announcements in the press, so it was quite astonishing.

Samsung announced that it was investing 450 trillion won over five years and hiring 80,000 people. The explanation it gave for the investment didn’t exactly answer my curiosity; it just said that the group intended to “contribute to national economic development by playing a leading role in becoming a ‘semiconductor superpower’ through preemptive investment, exceptional technological capabilities, and the creation of new markets.”

Within a few days, around a dozen chaebols and corporations had followed suit.

Does this represent the sudden and salutary return of entrepreneurs’ “animal spirits” (a la John Maynard Keynes) now that a conservative government is back in power?

That would be nice, but we should check our facts first. Korea’s chaebols have released plans of this sort under previous administrations as well. What we need to figure out is whether their investment plans are bigger than before.

In the case of Samsung, don’t let yourself be fooled by the numbers. On an annual basis, investment is only up 10 trillion won and employment is only up by 2,667 people from their announcement two years ago.

Regardless, boosting domestic investment and employment is good news at a time when young people are struggling to find jobs. People who take issue with that are liable to be treated as hopelessly naive.

My curiosity was satisfied during a meeting on June 2 between six major business organizations and Choo Kyung-ho, who is serving as deputy prime minister and minister of economy and finance.

“Businesspeople deserve credit for the intrepid spirit of making aggressive investments under these challenging conditions. I hope you’ll give serious thought to pardoning businesspeople such as Lee Jae-yong and Shin Dong-bin, whose business activities are currently being inconvenienced by overseas travel restrictions, so that they can be more active in the global market,” said Sohn Kyung-shik, chair of the Korea Enterprises Federation.

Lee is vice president of Samsung Electronics, while Shin is chairperson of Lotte Group.

Other items on these corporate leaders’ wish list are lowering the corporate income tax and inheritance tax, raising the workweek to 52 hours, and watering down the Serious Accidents Punishment Act.

So there we have it! This was hardly unexpected, but I was still surprised by the persistence and quick reflexes of the chaebols.

Significantly, former President Moon Jae-in had turned down a request to pardon the chaebol leaders just one month before. Moon considered the idea, but couldn’t justify it.

Perhaps the chaebols believe they’re back on top of the world. Or maybe they just assume there’s nothing money can’t buy.

I wonder how these requests will be handled by Yoon, who has placed such an emphasis on fairness, common sense, and the rule of law. I’m also curious about who stands to gain from the freedom he proclaims.

In his inaugural address, he depicted freedom and markets as some kind of panacea for all the challenges Korean society faces. While mentioning the important issues of excessive polarization and social conflict, he said, “Rapid growth will open up new opportunities,” adding, “It is imperative for us to make that big leap.”

When Yoon says that the “shackles” that are supposedly hobbling the chaebols’ business activities must be loosed for the economy to grow and polarization to be eased, I was reminded of the defunct theory of trickle-down economics.

Long ago, famed German thinker Max Weber asserted that inequality in society arises from disparities in the possession of financial wealth, social status and political power.

The key here is the wealth gap. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given how common it is for the wealthy to buy status and power.

But let’s not forget one thing. You can’t buy the hearts of the people, or their respect.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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