What does it take to get rich in Korea?Han Sang-bok opens his book, “The Rich in Korea,” with the premise that it’s an analysis of self-made men. A business reporter at a local financial newspaper, E-daily, Mr. Han conducted 143 interviews with wealthy Koreans. Most began with next to nothing and amassed more than 1 billion won in assets, not counting their primary residences. The individuals run the gamut from linen shop owners to stock brokers. None are executives at large corporations.
The volume which is the best-selling business book at the Kyobo bookstore, examines the working habits and investment strategies of these self-made individuals while trying to find their common thread.
Q. Your book is “The Rich in Korea.” Do you think there are differences between the rich in Korea and elsewhere?
A. They are similar in that most self-made men remain faithful to their principles. The difference I find is that it’s more difficult to become self-made rich in Korea than in some other countries. The competition is just too harsh here. Competitors swarm to the business if they hear something is doing well. You have to survive a bloody battle for a small market. Months later the entire market is saturated. Just count how many pizza places and chicken joints there are in your neighborhood. The soaring cost of real estate, which mainly results from an immature capital market and urban-centered living, also makes it difficult to save money. Buying stocks is too risky, and interest rates are now too low to grow your wealth. So, investors keep focusing on real estate.
Do you think the criteria you have set for being “rich” were fair? You limited your definition to individuals who have more than a billion won in assets. You also mentioned about marrying into a rich family as one way of becoming wealthy. Do you consider that “self-made rich” as well?
If you’ve made 1 billion won through real estate or stocks, chances are you’ll probably lead a fairly stable life. Also, remember that the people I’ve interviewed are not affiliated with jaebeol. These are people who began in regular jobs.
About marrying a rich spouse, I was pointing out that this kind of thing is unlikely. Most of the people I interviewed said that they wanted their children to marry partners from a similar background. And you are mistaken if you think marrying rich comes without any effort.
You talk about the family lives of the rich. Many of your subjects noted that their partners have contributed to more than 50 percent of their financial success. How do you think families influence a person’s financial status?
Many of my subjects were salaried workers, which makes the role of their partners ― mostly wives ― important. Most of the couples I talked to were trained to live frugally and save. One other common aspect was that the couples were good communicators. To meet their goals the couples shared ideas together. Many of the wives kept a strict budget and used their expense records to analyze and limit their spending. I also discovered that a bad relationship created several barriers to saving.
According to a recent poll, about 7 out of 10 Koreans believe that rich people made their money dishonestly. Six out of 10 said they don’t respect rich people. To what extent do you think these perceptions are based on truth?
The tradition of criticizing the rich is not confined to Korea. In many countries there is resentment of the rich simply because they are rich and others aren’t. We often judge rich people by their facades. People are not interested in how hard they worked, their failures and sacrifices. Their hostility is groundless. Yet everyone dreams of becoming rich.
The people you’ve interviewed held some virtues. Often they are hard working, persevering and thrifty. Yet they don’t seem to want to give much of what they earned back to the community.
It’s difficult to expect the rich to be generous, because their principles often conflict with the interests of others. If they didn’t keep their principles they probably wouldn’t be rich. I don’t think, however, money is what drives all of them. It’s a strategy, a medium to obtain stability and things that they desire. The fact many Koreans don’t give back to the community is largely because Korea has not yet become an advanced capitalist society. There should also be a systemic change. American donators get tax exemptions. Their names are put on buildings. In Korea, people would riot if a rich man tried to put his name on a public building.
Has the way you manage your own assets changed since writing this book?
I’m trying to reduce my expenditure. I’ve been driving the same car for the last 10 years, and I’d like to keep it longer. I also hope to pay back my bank loans soon.
In the book you note that saving money prepares a family for health and happiness. Did those you interviewed look happy?
None of the rich people I’ve met said money was how they measured their happiness. Many of them had their own problems, mostly concerning their children. They know that money can’t buy them happiness. But it seems to me that you need certain amount of wealth to keep you happy nowadays when companies make you retire earlier.
What else does it take to be wealthy?
Many of the self-made men don’t live the ridiculous lifestyles portrayed in soap operas. If you expect to become rich without making sacrifices you’ll only drive yourself to greater despair. If you’re greedy and lazy you can only be miserable, just like you’ll only win the lottery if you buy a ticket.
by Park Soo-mee