[VIEWPOINT]The man who stopped pedalingKim Woo-choong was 14 when the Korean War broke out. As a refugee, Mr. Kim worked as a news boy at Bangcheon Market in Daegu. He had to sell at least 100 copies a day to make ends meet for his family of four, which meant he needed to get customers before his competitors did.
He figured it would take too much time to take customers’ money and make change every time he sold a copy. So he folded bills into triangles in advance, and made change as he went. But other newsboys would still snatch customers away from behind. So young Kim began tossing out the newspapers first, then coming back later to collect the money. That’s how the future chairman of Daewoo Group did business.
The house at 1-16 Bangbae-dong, in Seoul’s Seocho district, used to be Mr. Kim’s residence. From the outside, it looks like any other house in the neighborhood, but from a bird’s eye view, one can see a meticulously managed garden with old trees that would have to cost tens of millions of won. That well-maintained garden, along with Mr. Kim’s name value, made it a tempting house when it was put up for auction.
But the garden, which boasts a dozen juniper trees, two dozen pine trees and more than 50 other trees, as well as dozens of natural stones, was not included in the appraisal price for the house. The seller and the winning bidder had brought the matter to court. Mr. Kim was strongly attached to the house, and did his best to prevent his home from being auctioned off.
That attachment is understandable, considering the fact that Mr. Kim had spent the golden days of his life living in the Seocho residence. Mr. Kim purchased the one-fifth-acre lot in 1978, and built the 4,600-square-foot, two-story house and the impressive garden the same year.
The home doubled as a VIP guesthouse for the Daewoo Group. He received heads of state and ministers from around the world, and made a major contribution to the export-driven chapter of Korea’s modern history from the 1970s to the 1990s. He literally built the empire of Daewoo ― which means “big house” in Korean ― while living at this residence.
Now Mr. Kim, an advocate of global management who once called himself “Kimghis Khan,” and who famously said, “The world is wide and there’s much to do,” is returning to a yet another “big house” as he ends his 68-month exile. Kim Yong-sun of Hansung Industrial Co., where the future tycoon had his first job upon graduating from college, once said, “If Kim Woo-choong becomes big, he will be huge. If not, he will end up in jail.” This comment has proven prophetic.
However, just as a fish swims in the water but does not covet it, Mr. Kim did not covet money while he played with it. He was greedy on behalf of the business itself, and hoped to use it to build a bigger house of global management. His style was to start up a new business, devote everything he had to it and more, and end up in debt.
Some referred to the economy characterized by the Kim Woo-choong style as a “bicycle economy.” Just as in riding a bicycle, one had to keep on pedaling, and put in more money, to keep the wheels rolling. When the pedals of Mr. Kim’s bicycle stopped moving, it was bound to fall over.
In discussing Kim Woo-choong’s achievements and his faults, there is no point in trying to decide which was more important in the end. His good and bad qualities were like the two wheels of a bicycle. Mr. Kim’s achievements would not have been possible if not for his faults, and his faults were the inevitable result of his achievements.
There may be differences in magnitude, but we all live a bicycle life, in one way or another. We could fall at any moment if we stop pedaling. The nation works the same way. We don’t have time to fuss about the return of Mr. Kim.
The prosecutors should investigate him with solemnity, and Mr. Kim should speak frankly about what he has done. The guilty politicians should remain calm. And the citizens should focus on their own business. We cannot let the whole nation fall over because it is looking back at a cyclist who himself fell down six years ago.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong