Samsung vs. Google
Korean firms should react to injustice at top
There is a gulf of difference between Korean firms and U.S. firms in responding to an act of injustice committed by their presidents.
Reacting to U.S. President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim executive order, top American companies openly rebelled. Google created a fund for refugees with its cofounder Sergey Brin participating in an anti-Trump rally. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a condemnation statement; Apple CEO Tim Cook stressed that the U.S. is a country of immigrants and without them it couldn't be what it is; and Starbucks' outgoing CEO Howard Shultz vowed to provide 10,000 jobs for refugees around the world.
In Korea, chaebol leaders have succumbed to the beck and call of power -- President Park Geun-hye and her partner Choi Soon-sil -- and did whatever they demanded with few questions asked.
Samsung, SK, LG, Hyundai, Lotte and the like paid billions of won to fund foundations under Choi's control after a meeting with President Park, the ultimate solicitor of bribes. Samsung's de facto leader Lee Jae-yong has been accused of bribing Park in return for her help in moving the state pension to use its stakes in the company's affiliates to approve an inter-subsidiary merger, solidifying his management control. Samsung claims it had no other choice but to heed Park's demand and it is unfair to try and punish Lee for that.
It's hard to dismiss Samsung's claim. Park had pressured CJ Group to "exile" its Vice Chairman Lee Mi-kyung for bankrolling movies that were critical of her government. The Park-Choi combo proved extremely efficient in their extortion racket, offering help to firms in trouble -- Lotte ahead of a probe in the middle of a nasty sibling power struggle, and SK over a pardon for its owner.
This food-chain relationship with power as the apex predator and chaebol as the prey has a long history dating back to the era of "dictatorship development" in the 1960s and 1970s when the current president's father, Park Chung-hee, poured scarce resources into a few select businesses in the name of industrialization.
In this sense, the chaebol plea for innocence has a point but still only a tenuous one.
They have become incomparably big enough to compete squarely with the world's best in some areas with Korea having been catapulted from being the world's poorest country into the ranks of most industrialized nations. This changed environment weakens the validity of their argument for victimhood.
Chaebol should live up to the zeitgeist of our time ― with great power comes great responsibility. That should start with the realization that they are not just money-making machines and are required to play their roles as responsible corporate citizens by standing up against injustice together with the rest of society. It is a matter of course that they should put their acts together first.
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