Challenging the Chaebol

South Korea's chaebol are a defining issue in this year’s presidential campaign, with the three leading candidates united in vowing reform. The December election could thus mark a turning point for the government’s deep-rooted collusion with the chaebol – and South Korea’s corporate dynasties are getting nervous.

SEOUL – When asked to identify Samsung’s fiercest enemy, most people would name Apple, given ongoing patent lawsuits in various countries. But Samsung, the largest of South Korea’s chaebol (vast, politically connected, family-run conglomerates), has bigger problems at home. In the run-up to the December presidential election, the chaebol have become a target of growing popular anger.

The chaebol played a crucial role in transforming war-torn South Korea into a wealthy, dynamic economy in less than four decades, supporting the impoverished population in the name of economy-first politics. (The economic consequences of military-first politics, the alternative path taken by North Korea, have proved disastrous.) Some of the world’s most recognizable brands – such as Hyundai and LG – are chaebols.

But the conglomerates’ gluttonous business practices have suffocated small and medium-size firms, stifled innovation, undermined job creation, and left much of South Korea’s population in relative poverty, while catapulting their founding families to extreme wealth. As a result, what had once been a fount of pride for South Koreans has become a source of contention.

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