Chaebol reforms rise as campaign issue for 2017

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Chaebol reforms rise as campaign issue for 2017

Chaebol reform is becoming a major issue for the next presidential campaign - even before any candidate formally announces a bid.

The influence-peddling scandal involving Choi Soon-sil, the confidante of President Park Geun-hye, has implicated Korea’s top conglomerates.

And there is growing disgruntlement over economic polarization in society, with the chaebol being blamed.

Ban Ki-moon, who returned to Seoul Thursday after ten years as UN Secretary General, called for chaebol reform even before he landed. Ban has yet to announce a presidential bid.

“I see reform as being inevitable,” Ban Ki-moon told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday during his flight from New York to Seoul. “Chaebol regulate everything, so small and medium-sized companies have no way of surviving.

“The influence of the chaebol is so large that it creates conflict between classes,” he continued. “It is an unfair society in which subcontractors do the same work [as large conglomerates] but only get paid 60 percent in return. That is where the problems begin to form.”

Moon Jae-in, former chairman of the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea and a frontrunner in the polls for the next presidential election, pledged Tuesday that he would focus on sweeping chaebol reform plans, with special focus on Korea’s top 10 conglomerates and four in particular: Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG.

His pledge included ideas that have not been raised in the political sphere before, including workers being able to name one board director.

Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, also of the Minjoo Party, expressed a more radical position.

“Chaebol conglomerates have to be separated from the chaebol families,” he said. He has gone so far as to call for the “dissolution of the chaebol.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, former co-head of the opposition People’s Party, has compared conglomerates to a “zoo” since his days as an entrepreneur.

“The unfair and ancient system of economic control that has been monopolized by chaebol enterprises has to be completely taken apart and fixed,” he has said.

He called for the Fair Trade Commission to take on the role of “prosecutors for the economy.”

Yoo Seong-min, who defected from the Saenuri and formed the so-called Barun party, was originally an economist and has said Korea’s economy is “not a free market economy at all.” He compares it to a “a jungle economy run by chaebol,” adding, “We need to carry out the boldest chaebol reform allowed under the frame of the Constitution.”

In the 2012 presidential campaign, then-candidates Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in both promisedchaebol reform under a pledge of economic democratization but the discussion has become even more intense now.

The Saenuri Party had a lukewarm attitude toward chaebol reform when it was the leading party, but a faction of some 30 lawmakers against President Park Geun-hye defected, and this new group is also expected to champion chaebol reform. With Ban raising the issue, momentum in the National Assembly is more likely.

More Saenuri representatives, including lawmakers from Chungcheong, Ban’s home province, are expected to defect from the party and possibly join the former UN chief in a so-called “Third Way” in politics.

Should that happen, of 300 lawmakers in the National Assembly, at least 200 can be expected to either directly or indirectly support chaebol reform.

Moon leads as the most popular presidential candidate garnering 31 percent of support according to pollster Gallup Korea Friday, up 11 percentage points from the previous month. Ban maintained a 20 percent approval rating based on the poll conducted between Tuesday and Thursday on 1,700 adults nationwide. His younger brother and nephew were indicted in New York on bribery charges.

Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung came in third with a 12 percent approval rating, down 6 points compared to last month.

Ahn Cheol-soo trailed at 7 percent, South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung came in at 6 percent, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting president, at 5 percent, Yoo Seong-min of the so-called Barun party at 3 percent and independent Sohn Hak-kyu at 2 percent.

BY HEO JIN, CHAE YOON-KYUNG AND SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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