[NOTEBOOK]Polishing up the jaebeol

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[NOTEBOOK]Polishing up the jaebeol

One thing a new administration used to do after every change was to set up measures to deal with conglomerates. A plan to come down hard on the jaebeol, the large enterprises here, was a staple of the early stages of new administrations. The methods they chose varied from forcing the sale of properties of big businesses to the donation of owners’ private funds to targeted audits of enterprises with the help of the prosecution. But the main point was to rein in the jaebeol. Whenever a new administration was elected, all large enterprises hunkered down and tried to stay out of the government’s sight.
Nothing showed off the freshness of a new administration better than bashing the jaebeol, but now, accusing the former administration and big businesses of corrupt relationships is one major difference between this administration and its predecessors.
This policy of strict dealings with the conglomerates in the early stages of a new administration also has the effect of getting the enterprises to follow government policies more easily afterwards. The government needs the cooperation of the jaebeol for raising the employment rate, getting contributions for flood victims and an endless list of other needs. Jaebeol read the thoughts of the government through such activities, and the government and jaebeol go about developing a new relationship.
The next thing that happens is for the president to meet with the leaders of the business world. They give and receive well-wishing remarks and requests and promise that they will make efforts for the development of the economy. It was customary for business circles to announce, in the form of a voluntary decision, their “contribution” to the government that the administration suggested.
From outward appearances, it seems as if the new government has not been able to change the customary relations between the administration and the jaebeol. The administration went through the process of investigating presidential campaign funds and announced plans to reform the jaebeol, and the customary meeting with the leaders of the business world followed, just as the beginnings of other administrations had seen. But one thing that is definitely different about this administration is that it has cut off any possibility of having political and commercial collusion. This means that the business circles are clearly free from shouldering the burden of political funding. We should be happy about this outcome.
Yet the business world still seems to be studying the faces of politicians, not able to stand up straight. Large investments have been promised, but businesses are evidently feeling timid. The reason for this is that our country’s jaebeol have not been able to shake off their original sin.
In the days when our country was developing, the government put the jaebeol enterprises on a fast track of growth. The resources of our country were given directly to the jaebeol as part of government policy, based on a promise between the two parties that the pie was to be divided later, after the government helped to make it big. Korea’s jaebeol were the driving force behind the country’s economy and the privileged subjects of explosive growth. The thing that linked the government and the jaebeol during this process was politico-commercial collusion; that is, political funds.
The structure of Korea’s jaebeol is one that has adjusted to and evolved through a Korean political environment and social climate to take the form of an optimum corporate organization.
The problem is that many people who lived through the development years regard the wealth the jaebeol saved up through those years as public property that should be shared, not personal property. The property is legally personal property and the jaebeol families have the right to retain it, but some people will not easily acknowledge that fact. Such a position clashes with the personal ownership system, which is the basis of capitalism. This viewpoint is also responsible for the latest surge of anti-corporate emotion.
Putting “national sentiment” first, and coming down hard on the jaebeol every time the administration changes has therefore become a matter of course. But when is this cycle of punishing the jaebeol going to stop? Right now there is no other way to save the Korean economy than to stimulate investments by the large enterprises.
Now we need a custom of cleansing the Korean jaebeol of their sins. Instead of getting together and deciding how much they need to contribute to society, let us acknowledge their righteousness. Then let us help them to become successful global corporations by making more investments, more jobs, and more money. Let us help them use all the money they want in bright public places for the weak people of society and the public interest instead of handing over political funds in dark and damp secret chambers.

* The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Jong-soo

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