Sniper at the top

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Sniper at the top


Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A presidential appointment usually bears a message. But the meaning behind bringing Fair Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Kim Sang-jo to the Blue House as policy chief is hard to comprehend. Opinions vary. Some say Kim’s appointment suggests a shift in economic policy direction as he can be flexible. Others fear more arm-twisting and pressure on big chaebol. I disagree with both views. I hardly see any meaning to it. “I am willing to meet with Samsung Electronics Vice Chair Lee Jae-yong if he wants to,” was Kim’s first comment after reporting to his new office in the Blue House.

What’s the big deal? He may be suggesting he could be more flexible than his predecessors Jang Ha-sung and Kim Soo-hyun by implying that they turned Samsung down and didn’t meet the de facto leader of the country’s biggest group and most valuable company. His comment also connotes high-handedness as if he was doing a favor by sparing his time for Lee. Singling out Samsung betrays the Moon Jae-in administration’s love-and-hate feelings for Samsung. If Kim meant to say the Blue House would pay more heed to the voices of the business community, he should have said he could meet with any business leader, whomever and whenever. But mentioning Samsung alone out of all business names suggest a complex attitude towards Samsung.

Kim built his name and reputation by slamming Samsung. As a member of a civic activist group, he attacked the ownership structure of family corporate empires, namely Samsung. He pressed numerous charges with the prosecution against former and active executives of Samsung including Chairman Lee Kun-hee. He preached the dangers of the chaebol structure in which a founding family wields almighty power over the corporate empire with a very small stake. He criticized Samsung and Hanwha for not seeking his advice for management and won the moniker “chaebol sniper.” At the end, he was recruited by Samsung to lecture before Samsung executives.


Kim Sang-jo, left, the new senior presidential secretary for policy, stands with his predecessor Kim Soo-hyun, right, at the Blue House on June 21. The new policy chief of the Blue House has been known as the “chaebol sniper” for his antipathy to conglomerates. [NEWS1]

His value soared as Samsung move up the world’s ranks. His obsession with Samsung turned to a love-hate relationship. Six years ago, Kim said he loved Samsung, but in a different way. After he was named FSC chair by Moon, he appeared to testify against Samsung’s Lee in a court trying the Samsung heir on charges of bribing former President Park Geun-hye in return for her help in the government’s backing of Samsung Group’s hereditary succession process.

As FSC chair, he kept to the ideological bias that chaebol mean over-concentration of wealth and power and therefore were synonymous with evil. Two years ago, he apologized for being late to a government meeting because, he said, he had to “teach chaebol a lesson.” After his arrogance came under fire, he promised to be more prudent. In a pre-distributed speech in an international workshop in March, he said chaebol were causing harm to society by bribing bureaucrat politicians and media. When the comment raised a stir, he dropped the remark from his lecture and even said he liked chaebol. Was that his way of being “flexible?”

Words can be reversed, but actions cannot. He fanned collusion and distorted fair market competition as the chair of the antitrust agency by restricting new convenience store openings and forcing franchise companies to disclose costs that determine business competitiveness. He scrapped the FTC’s exclusive authority to press charges against companies for unfair business practices, a measure to prevent excessive prosecutorial meddling and criminal investigations of business affairs. It is naïve to think the government will turn more pro-business due to worsening economic conditions by placing him in charge of economic policymaking.

Moon may have thought the choice of Kim was akin to former President Roh Moo-hyun recruiting former Finance Minister Lee Hun-jae to help him during the credit card bubble bursting and the political crisis over an impeachment motion. If that was the idea, recruiting Moon’s first deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon would have been a better idea. Agility is as important as experience in handling economies in crisis.

But since Kim is at the helm, I advise him to shake off his obvious obsession with Samsung. The group is detested by the liberals not just because it is rich and powerful but also because it bans unions. Samsung is evil under the left-leaning ideology. That is why Kim is keener on slamming Samsung than Hyundai Motor, which has a bigger industrial site and number of employees. Kim has reached the top of the power pyramid. He should steer his attention away from Samsung and try to save the economy.
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