Posted by YEO Wei Lin, Year 3 undergrad at the School of Accountancy, Singapore Management University
On January 7th South Korean prosecutors indicted Cho Hyunah, a former vicepresident of Korean Air Lines, on four charges over her widely publicised outburst over how nuts should be served on an plane. Irrespective of its outcome, the trial will mean many months of unflattering media coverage—at home and abroad—of South Korea’s familyrun conglomerates, known as chaebol. This is a negative development for both the chaebol and the reliance upon them by the president, Park Geunhye, as the main engines of economic growth and exports. Further, hints that other jailed tycoons may be freed to rescue the economy will stoke longstanding concerns about governance issues in South Korea.Cho Hyunah, whose remit at Korean Air Lines included being in charge of inflight service, was detained on December 30th after a rage incident earlier in the month on a flight leaving New York (US) for Seoul. She was angry at being served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a plate as a passenger in first class, which prompted her to order the taxiing plane back to the gate to evict the chief purser; the flight reached Seoul 11 minutes late. She now faces a minimum jail sentence of one year and a maximum of 15 years on four charges, including violating the aviation security law by changing flight plans, assault on a plane, coercion and interference with duty.
Family succession and related issues
Cho Hyunah’s father, Cho Yangho, is the chairman of Korean Air Lines, and he apologised along with his daughter for the incident. The “nut rage” episode has raised several broader issues about the power structure at chaebol businesses. One major issue of concern is family succession. At several chaebol, including the two biggest and bestknown, Samsung and Hyundai Motor, a third generation is being groomed to take charge. Since the families who own the businesses are often not majority shareholders, family succession entails financial manoeuvring.
For instance, on December 18th the initial public offering (IPO) for Samsung’s de facto holding company, Cheil Industries (known until June 2014 as Samsung Everland), earned W5.9trn (US$5.6bn) for Samsung group chairman Lee Kunhee’s three children, who are all senior executives at various affiliates. However, the role of Cheil Industries in Samsung’s overall plans remains uncertain, with some speculation that if Samsung were to undergo a restructuring, it would be merged with Samsung Electronics and emerge as the primary holding company.
With the latest IPO, the successors of Lee Kunhee have cemented their control over the company, but questions about succession in case of family disputes and concerns about the competence of family members to run the business remain pertinent. Lee Kunhee was stricken by a heart attack last May, and the performance of the group’s flagship business, Samsung Electronics, has since been disappointing. Lee Kunhee is estranged from his brother and sister, and in 2012 they unsuccessfully sued him for shares worth US$4bn that they claimed were rightfully theirs. Sibling strife also splintered Samsung’s former rival, Hyundai, into several separate business groups.
While most chaebol owed their early success to state support, the direction of influence seems to have reversed. Following last year’s Sewol ferry tragedy, which raised issues of lax or corrupt regulation and improper collusion, prosecutors in the Cho Hyunah case plan to indict a transport ministry official for leaking details of a probe to Korean Air Lines, and a manager at the airline for ordering employees to delete an initial report of the incident. They are also investigating claims that the airline gave government officials free upgrades. Meanwhile, the purser who was removed by Cho Hyunah from the plane claims that the airline pressured him to lie about key details associated with the case.
The “nut rage” affair also comes as a welcome distraction for the beleaguered president. The pillorying of Cho Hyunah allows Park Geunhye to burnish her populist credentials, and helps to distract from a scandal involving strife among staff at the Blue House (the presidential office) that has dented her ratings. While chaebolbashing always plays well and calls for “economic democracy” helped Park Guenhye to win the election in 2012, her focus as president switched to boosting lacklustre growth, and big business is seen as vital for that.
On the stump Park Geunhye pledged that, unlike in the past, tycoons jailed for financial crimes would not receive special pardons. However, in September 2014 both the justice and finance ministers opined that pardons or parole should be considered if this could contribute to economic recovery. In late December 2014 three leading figures in the ruling conservative Saenuri Party resurrected the issue. Its leader, Kim Moosung, a likely presidential contender in 2017, claimed that “investment is impossible without the owner’s decision”. Park Geunhye is keen to cajole conglomerates, who hold a total of W450trn in cash, to invest more to stimulate the economy.
The call for corporate stimulus to revive the economy is being read by some media segments as a signal that Chey Taewon, the chairman of SK, the thirdlargest chaebol, will be granted parole soon. Chey Taewon is almost halfway through a fouryear jail term for embezzling W45bn. (This is his second stretch; he first served a jail term for a US$1bn accounting fraud in 2003.) Businesses in South Korea continue explicitly to prioritise financial returns over governance concerns, which continues to dent investor sentiment. Too many chaebol chiefs have convictions for financial crimes, including both Lee Kunhee and Chung Mongkoo. Korean Air’s Cho Yangho was also jailed in 1999 for tax evasion, despite which he heads the organising committee for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Prior to the “nut rage” debacle, Cho Hyunah was billed as a potential chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), the chaebol lobby group, which on February 10th will choose a successor to Huh Changsoo of GS Group, the eighthlargest conglomerate.
A conducive and transparent business environment should prompt convicted business owners to step down from positions of power. As Park Geunhye once grasped, pardoning such individuals sends all the wrong signals. While indicting Cho Hyunah, prosecutors claimed that her actions “damaged national dignity”. However, if she is indeed imprisoned while male tycoons found guilty of serious offences are set free, the harm to South Korea and the international reputation of its companies and brands will only be compounded.