[OUTLOOK]Samsung’s role in societySamsung Group has become a target of attack from all sides. Even the president criticized the business conglomerate. The main points of criticism can be summarized as follows.
First, there is controversy over the revision of the law governing the financial industry structure. Samsung Life Insurance Co. holds more than 5 percent of the shares of its affiliate, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. Samsung is criticized because the shares bought by the group’s insurance company were, critics think, bought with the clients’ insurance money, yet the owner of the group appears to exercise their voting rights. Also there is a concern that a financial company may be able to exercise control over non-financial companies in this manner.
However, Samsung says the shares were bought about 10 years ago, and that the application of the law limiting the ownership of shares would be retroactive because the shares were bought before the enactment of the law. In consideration of such circumstances, the government decided to recognize the shares bought in excess of the 5 percent limit before the revision of the law as an exception. This exception, however, is seen as giving “a favor to Samsung.” In the case of Samsung Electronics, foreign shareholders own more than 60 percent of its shares, and its management is under the threat of challenges from foreign funds. Still the government is urging the company to sell shares that it already has. That is what Samsung thinks is unfair.
Another problem is that of inheritance. Samsung has fingers pointed at it over whether the owner of the group paid proper inheritance taxes in the course of handing over the group’s assets to the third generation. Critics claim that the owner of the group evaded paying proper inheritance taxes that should accompany the inheritance of a big business conglomerate like Samsung, but Samsung says that the owner’s family “was able to cut down on taxes because there were loopholes in the law.” This could be a legally correct statement. After all, people have always wanted to avoid taxes throughout history all over the world.
There are also disputes over Samsung’s non-union workforce and the management style of its Chairman and CEO Lee Kun-hee, which is being criticized as being imperial. This is also quite distressing for Samsung. The group may not have a labor union but it treats its workers well and the workers themselves do not gripe about it, so why are outsiders picking fights?
The same goes for the imperial management style of its owner. Samsung may question whether anyone is damaged by an imperial management style. The group has never violated people’s rights because of its management style, or damaged their fortunes, so why are people who have nothing to do with the company picking on Samsung’s management style?
Concerning the controversy over the so-called X-file, in which conversations of a senior executive of the group were tapped, the group says that all companies were involved in political lobbying at the time, and that it is not fair that people do not talk about the politicians who received money yet criticize companies that gave money to them. Samsung must be feeling that all these things are unfair to it.
Nevertheless, I would like to tell Samsung that it should not feel mistreated, because there is a difference between the way Samsung people see themselves and the way people outside of Samsung view them. People inside Samsung tend to think of the company as a personal company. They think that the company should contribute to society by making big profits through maximizing the effectiveness and creativity of the company. However those outside of Samsung consider it to be more than just an individual’s company. People think of Samsung more like a public institution which goes beyond a business corporation that pursues profits.
Samsung’s criticism comes from many directions. From the viewpoint that sees Samsung not as an individual company but as part of a free market economy or a symbol of economic globalization, people may believe that the world of ideas they pursue can be materialized if only that symbol is broken. On the other hand, even the media outlets that normally advocate the market economy join in the attack on Samsung. They do so probably for two reasons. First, they want the company to play its role properly, as Samsung is a symbol of the free market economy. Second, because they are envious and jealous.
Neither people nor corporations can overcome their environment. And it is also difficult for Samsung to overcome the climate of the country it was born in, Korea. Samsung has to take into account the conscience of equality and justification that Koreans characteristically have. Korea is a country where people cannot spend all their money as they wish, even if they have it. Therefore, there is a need to be more careful and astute in Korea. The excuse that there was nothing illegal does not make things right.
Samsung should not be seen as having the arrogance of the strong, showing elitism or worshipping money. A company will die if it does not make profits and this may be a proposition that even the owners can do nothing about, but Samsung needs to be more careful because the people already see the group as something more than just a corporation that makes a profit.
What Samsung needs to do is reduce the difference in perspectives between those inside and outside of the conglomerate. In other words, it needs to become more than just a personal company and live up to the expectations of ordinary people who consider Samsung a national institution. Samsung needs to have the unprejudiced morality, and warmth and generosity of the wealthy. It has to even consider the equal distribution of wealth and social justice.
For business corporations, this could be like a cup of bitter liquid that they would rather not have to drink. They might protest, “Why do we have to shoulder such things?” Yet if it is a cup that cannot be avoided, it is better to drink willingly. It is because people expect Samsung to do more than make money. They expect that the conglomerate will create even greater values. When Samsung lives up to such expectations, it will become more than a good business corporation, it will be a great one.
* The writer is the chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk