The yoke of fate

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The yoke of fate

It was a sunny spring day. A gentleman in a smart suit appeared in the auditorium where 300 judicial apprentices were gathered. He was introduced as a “respectable alumni” and took the podium with a sheepish smile. Those in attendance remember the day 23 years ago.

It was at the main auditorium of the Judicial Research and Training Institute in Seocho-dong, Seoul, which was moved to Goyang City in 2001. In the audience were aspiring legal professionals of the 22nd class and the speaker was 42-year-old Hyun Jae-hyun, chairman of Tongyang Group, which was among the top 10 biggest conglomerates in Korea at the time. After graduating from the prestigious Gyeonggi High School, Hyun passed the bar exam in 1970, when he was a junior at Seoul National University. He became a prosecutor in 1975 and married the eldest daughter of Tongyang founder Lee Yang-gu the following year. After one year, he left the prosecution. Lee Yang-gu didn’t have a son, so Hyun took over the group in 1989. It was the first time the son-in-law of a business leader had inherited a conglomerate.

Hyun’s lecture 23 years ago was not very impressive. The students only remember that his speech was about “looking at the world with an open mind and living with dignity and style.” Some found it uncomfortable that the heads of the institute were overly courteous to the businessman.

The year was 1991, when the yearning for democratization became relaxed and suppressed materialistic desires were expressed. Three years after overseas travel became freely permitted, the tourism balance marked a deficit for the first time. The police caught women wearing midriff-bearing crop tops, but that didn’t stop more and more people from expressing themselves with revealing outfits. Shin Hae-chul’s song “Jazz Cafe” was a hit. So it didn’t seem so unusual for a businessman who recklessly expanded his business in finance and telecommunications to speak to a class of judicial apprentices.

This fall, Hyun was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was convicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement and stock price manipulation. Hyun and Tongyang sold corporate bonds to tens of thousands of investors resulting in a loss of 1.3 trillion won ($1.23 billion). Justice Wie Hyun-seok of Seoul Central District Court censured the defendant as he didn’t appear to regret his wrongdoings. Wie was among the 300 students 23 years ago. In an interview, he told me that he remembers Hyun’s speech. Hyun has been given the second-heaviest sentence for a financial crime in Korean history. The ruling was a message from the judge to the businessman who had been a prosecutor before him for neglecting morality to chase ambition and greed.

*The author is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Sunday. JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 30, Page 35

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