From whence she came

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From whence she came


Cho Hyun-ah, or Heather Cho as she was known as a student at the University of Southern California Business School, is emblematic of so much more about Korea than is generally reported.

Heather and her kin, the scions of other major chaebol families, consider themselves a rarefied “Masters of the Universe” clique - or at least “Masters of Korea” - that operates above and beyond many legal and social restrictions. Too often these families run roughshod over their employees with the philosophy that it’s better to be feared than loved. (Although respect is what they always demand.) They particularly crave respect from parties they consider their peers in advanced economies. The fact that the so-called “Korean nut rage” episode took place at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport invited international ridicule, which grated particularly hard on the family and even the nation’s egos.

While I harbor no sympathies for misbehaving poor little rich girls, I view them as being the products, and in a way the victims, of Korean culture as a whole. As we all recognize, Korean society is one of the most competitive in the world both materially and socially.

As such, most members of the society pander to the whims of these elite families in hopes of somehow earning their goodwill and a little of their largesse. Consequently, the elite’s children swan around Seoul and other world capitals like little princes and princesses, while their parents look on from above like demigods. One chaebol chairman is reported to have admitted that when he studied in America, he found a period of unusual freedom: He lived like a normal person without everyone around him scraping and kowtowing.

It’s no wonder this privilege and power goes to people’s heads. No one dares to contradict or openly challenge them. At the same time, under a veneer of respect and propriety, the unwashed masses despise this class out of a combination of envy and outrage over their arrogance. The masses are gleeful when any of these individuals tumble from their pedestals, even briefly. No doubt the members of the elite are all too well aware of their power being fragile - all of which creates a shared social psychosis that constitutes much of South Korean culture.

Korean Air Lines (KAL) has been more publicly rebuked for the need to change its culture than other chaebols, for the cockpit culture that led to the Guam crash of some 20 years ago, the tax cheating culture that sent the current chairman to jail for a spell or now the roughshod management culture involving the chairman’s daughter. But KAL’s culture is probably not much worse than at other large chaebol. Perhaps the corporation has simply been unlucky in being exposed so regularly.

The fundamental change in culture that is needed is on a national basis. As it stands today, South Korean culture is a mishmash of Confucianism, crony capitalism and an increasing disparity of wealth among the social classes.

One may expect that this kind of cultural mix would lead to calls for so-called structural reforms - wide and deep changes to the way things are done. The obvious question is by whom? Korean culture is in many ways a struggle for every family, if not every individual, for oneself. To even talk of fundamental cultural reform would probably take an extraordinarily strong individual, politically or spiritually - or more likely both. The last such person of such a caliber that comes to mind was the late Ham Sok-Hon whom, by his own omission, failed to establish a political organization to leverage his insights beyond that of a lone, if admired, philosopher.

While reading the papers and watching television about the KAL scandal, I am bothered by the knee-jerk criticisms of one foolish woman without anyone looking deeper into the underlying problem.

As a foreigner, I don’t pretend to have greater insight than intelligent Koreans. But perhaps I may have greater social and political freedom to define what most Koreans would rather not express. At the same time, my perspective is not as relevant as that of a Korean coming to the same conclusions. After all, a Korean should have a more bona fide understanding of this society than I do. What he or she would also need would be the courage to stand up and call for reform and risk censure from society as a whole. So far, I have not seen such an individual. And if there are few or no such courageous individuals, their absence may be symptomatic of a problem much greater than the temper tantrum of a spoiled daughter of a corporate boss.

One may ask whether South Koreans can ultimately save themselves from themselves. It’s anyone’s guess. While seeing a spoiled rich woman grovel in public may seem to be appropriate and even satisfying, such public contrition does little to change or improve the overall situation. Unfortunately, no one in Korea seems to be delving into the underlying causes for the purpose of serious discussion. Instead, there is only a great deal of mass media titillation and private schadenfreude, along with wan calls for management reform.

Beyond that, nothing seems likely to change. In other words, we may expect to witness more of the same bad behavior in the future.


*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”

by Tom Coyner

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