Drawing on her talentsThe September issue of "Equitable" magazine listed the 50 wealthiest women in Korea. While most of the women on the list were wives or daughters of founders of jaebeol, a few women in the group made their fortunes through their own efforts.
One of those women, Chun Myung-ok, 47, the chairman of KOKO Enterprises, owns 24 billion won ($20 million) of her company's stock. The fact that Ms. Chun is the legitimate owner of her own animation production company and that she has stayed with the company since Day 1 distinguishes her career from those of many of the women on the list.
Even though she is ranked 22 on the list, Ms. Chun is not well-known to the public. Nevertheless, by taking a look at her work, her achievements take on a different light. The Batman, Superman and 101 Dalmatians series are just a few of the well-known creations that have passed her desk.
Her company works under what is called "original equipment manufacturing." Simply, it's a process of producing materials for other companies. In her case, those companies are, among others, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and 20th-Century Fox. In the U.S. animation industry, the name KOKO, which comes from "Korea, Korea," has a high recognition. Even so, it wasn't always like this. In the 1980s, KOKO was always the subcontractor of a subcontractor. Often an American firm would give orders to a Japanese firm from which KOKO would then take orders. The company's breakthrough came in 1994 when Warner Brothers specifically asked KOKO to do the animation on the Batman series.
In the production of an animation, creating a story and the main characters belong to the pre-production process, while drawing and coloring the pictures, as well as shooting and editing, belong to the main production process. In the post-production process special effects and voices are added.
KOKO's business is in the main production process of animation.
In the 1970s, if a woman went to college, she generally majored in education. This was no different for Ms. Chun, who studied education at Korea University. However, she always had a knack for art and after graduation she went straight to Japan to study at a Tokyo design school for two years. At the time, the word animation was mostly associated with "poverty and "hunger."
"When I first established the company in 1982, many people asked me whether I would be able just to have enough to eat doing animation as a business," she says. She did have enough to eat －－ but most nights she ate instant noodles.
Despite KOKO's success, some industry officials criticize the company for not taking a step forward and producing major animated works on its own instead of just doing the grunt work. Ms. Chun is well aware of the criticism but points out that she can't invest a lot of money in something that is still considered too risky. She argues that in order for a company to survive, a steady flow of profit is needed, and making money by exporting pre-ordered products, such as Batman, is a sure way to guarantee survival in a volatile industry.
These days, as she worries about the future of her company, Ms. Chun is trying to find a business model after which she could center her company. At first, she thought of Disney as the perfect solution, but the more Disney diversified its business and added other units to its core, it became clear to her that she needed another model. Ghibli, a company established by the famous Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao, is her model now.
"That's my ultimate goal," she says. "To become the best animation company. But I won't rush into it. I will take it step by step."
To get there, she is waiting for the right moment when everything is in place, when she is sure that she can create an animated movie that will truly be equal to those turned out by the big boys.
Females and the big bucks: Most get it from a spouse or parent
A survey conducted in August showed that Lee Myung-hee, the fifth daughter of the Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, is the wealthiest woman in Korea and eighth-richest person overall. Hong Ra-hee, president of the Ho-Am Museum, and Lee Kun-hee's three daughters, Lee Bu-jin, Lee Seo-hyun and Lee Yoon-hyung, all ranked in the top 10 -- all these women belong to the Samsung family. The Koo family of the LG conglomerate also ranked highly with eight women in the top 25.
The youngest woman on the list is Lim Sang-min, 24, second daughter of Lim Chang-wook, the honorary president of Daesang, while the oldest high-ranking woman is Han Sang-eun, 74, wife of Bae Sang-myung, president of Kook Soon-dang, a traditional beverage company. If the list proves anything it's that it shows most of the richest women in Korea have become wealthy through birth or connections, and few have earned their wealth on their own.
Mrs. Cho and Seo Jee-hyun of VirtualTek are the only two women ranked in the top 30 who have built their own companies and have risen to wealth.
by Lee Seok-ho