[Outlook]Improving SamsungIt was some 15 or 16 years ago that I worked as a correspondent in Washington. In an attempt to interview the vice president of the United States, I handed in a request to the White House.
In the letter, I wrote explanations of the JoongAng Ilbo. I wrote that the newspaper was one of the top dailies in Korea and it had a large number of subscribers. A public relations person at the State Department, who was knowledgeable about Korea, read my letter and asked why I did not write that the newspaper was established by the Samsung Group. He said that explanation would make the newspaper look much more reliable than any explanation I could have written.
I was taken aback. I was used to criticism inside Korea that the newspaper was the jaebeol’s paper so I was worried that to mention Samsung would make it look like the newspaper was not independent.
Some claimed that the JoongAng Ilbo’s separation from the Samsung Group was nothing but show. The separation was approved by the Fair Trade Commission, and the deal’s content was publicized. Would it be possible to erase the legitimate deal with a secret deal? At present, there are no legal ties between the JoongAng Ilbo and Samsung. But even if the two are separated in the legal sense, it is hard to cut out the paper’s roots and networks overnight.
I still have strong feelings for Samsung inside my heart. That is how things are in real life. But if a newspaper ignores public interest and a sense of justice and defends the interests of certain groups, readers will not read it. The JoongAng Ilbo has nearly 2 million readers, and the number is only increasing. I would like to say that this is because people trust the newspaper.
Those who work in the public interest must be always aware of conflicts of interest. A judge who has a personal interest in a certain case cannot preside over it at trial. Journalists also need to bear this in mind.
That is why I am careful when I talk about Samsung even though the JoongAng Ilbo and Samsung are no longer legally related and have no bonds in terms of goods and personnel affairs. But Samsung is more than an individual company in this country. The company has become something akin to a national institution. Samsung is the target of public attention.
When the Samsung Medical Center renovated its mortuary parlors, other hospitals did the same. Samsung’s reforms became the talk of our society. As Samsung rose to become a global company, it became a model for other Korean companies. But with the company under attack, it seems to be drifting and no one seems to be able to control it.
I do not mean to say that the company must be given special favor because a crisis for the company would cause another in Korea. But irregularities aside, Samsung must be revived for the sake of the country and this recent conflict must lead to a happy ending.
First, there are a couple of things that Samsung needs to do. A company cannot exist outside society. When society changes, companies needs to change with it. Samsung and Hyundai were products of a past era in which the military pursued development and economic improvements. The leadership of Lee Byung-chull and Chung Ju-yung was similar to the political leadership of the military dictatorship.
As our country has become democratic, companies also need to follow. The core of democracy is separation of power and checks and balances. It is not democratic if conglomerates attempt to yield exclusive power or eternal influence.
The structure of a company should not be a pyramid-shaped hierarchy. It should not be like the office of a Blue House presidential secretary, either. That is because the era of mass production and economy of scale has already passed. The way to hand down ownership of a company must be suited for a democratic society. Equal opportunity must be guaranteed. Samsung is now in trouble because it has neglected these things.
There are other things that the people need to do. Companies must survive, and survival is the companies’ top priority. In an era of global competition, companies are exposed to harsh and fierce competition. Such competition torments them. Conglomerates in other countries also lobby their governments and donate money to election campaigns. They do so to survive, not simply because businessmen are greedy and corrupt.
It is understandable that people become angry over lax moral standards among businesspeople. But competition is a big factor in companies’ irregularities. Koreans believe in equality and have deep-rooted hostilities against jaebeol. The political arena takes advantage of this and draws up populist policies. Korea’s companies have to survive in such an environment.
When Chung Mong-koo avoided prison, many criticized his suspended sentence, saying that justice was not realized. But Chung contributed tremendously to Yeosu’s bid to hold the World Expo. We can see which was the right decision.
I hope that Samsung will use the current adversity to change thoroughly. I expect a transformation to take place, just as a crawling caterpillar changes into a beautiful butterfly that flies freely in the sky.
*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk