Despite their vast wealth and the social responsibilities that follow with their riches, Korean billionaires are known for keeping their distance from the public and keeping them in the dark on critical management ― and sometimes personal ― issues.
This is not entirely their fault, since one piece of damaging gossip is often all it takes to nudge them onto the chopping block.
But even considering the country’s unique societal tendency to be less lenient toward the wealthy, it is also true that the wealthy are passive about communicating with the public.
And this trend appears to persist even amid a revolution in communication via the growth of social networking services.
While the rest of the world can never get enough of Facebook or Twitter ― and is obsessing over various new industry sectors that result from SNS ― chaebols continue to insist on living the hermit life.
SNS, enemy of the chaebol
Of South Korea’s richest 100 people, there are only a handful who are taking advantage of SNS.
Those officially confirmed to possess an account on Facebook, Twitter, Kakao Story or any other mainstream SNS are Ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Chung Mong-joon, the largest shareholder of Hyundai Heavy Industries, and Doosan Group chairman Park Yong-maan.
The former lawmaker has roughly 80,000 followers on his Twitter account, a considerable number for a politician-turned-businessman, especially in South Korea.
Yet the content that can be found on Chung’s SNS accounts is more often than not driven by national issues and heavy on politics as opposed to small talk or anecdotes about his life as an entrepreneur.
Some also argue that his SNS, as with many other Korean billionaires, is delicately managed in order to ensure a certain degree of censorship, which contradicts the core potential of SNS ― to openly and freely communicate day-to-day thoughts and activities.
Park, on the other hand, is South Korea’s most active SNS user among company owners.
He has roughly 170,000 Twitter followers and believes that SNS should be used for genuine communication and fun.
The chairman has been grabbing people’s attention by sharing episodes from his daily life, like the time he had to eat on store credit because he forgot his wallet, or by writing comments such as “I should give him a piggyback ride,” referring to a Doosan Bears baseball player after an outstanding game.
He has also tweeted about a successful April Fools’ Day prank on his colleagues and his thoughts after opening a brand new mobile device.
Unlike most chaebol chairmen, he does not come across as bossy or stuck-up and is well received by young people.
Hyundai Card CEO Chung Tae-young also has a considerable presence on SNS.
Dubbed the most “sensual” figure among South Korean CEOs, Chung fills his SNS with diverse content.
From ordinary anecdotes such as the time he took care of the check for a couple sitting beside him at a restaurant when he overheard them praising Hyundai Card, to a photograph he took with Paul McCartney, one of his favorite musicians, he communicates with the public about his everyday life.
In 2013, he also had a heated discussion on SNS with Dreamwiz CEO Lee Chan-jin over the topic of electronic payments.
But apart from Park and Chung there are very few other billionaires, if any, who are active SNS users, even in the IT industry.
NCsoft CEO Kim Taek-jin and Dreamwiz CEO Lee Chan-jin are just about the only figures in the IT industry to use Twitter.
Even Naver’s founder Lee Hae-jin, who owns Line, the company’s mobile messenger, is not known to have an official SNS account.
Age not a problem
Overseas, it is a whole different situation.
Among Forbes’ top 100 billionaires, more than half were found to be regularly using SNS.
Many global leaders utilize social networks to share their business philosophies and personal interests or even to promote their companies.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for instance, is an extremely influential figure in the realm of social networks.
He has 15.8 million followers on his Twitter account, which places him No. 37 in the world ranking of number of followers.
While the list is dominated by celebrities, he is the only businessman who has made it to the top 50. It seems an even greater accomplishment when considering that Google’s and Samsung’s official follower counts are around 830,000.
Michael Bloomberg (about 570,000 followers) and Mark Zuckerberg (about 27 million “likes” on his Facebook page) are also popular superrich figures who use SNS.
But some say that because South Korea’s chaebol leaders are mostly in their 60s and 70s, it is difficult for them to become familiar with social networks ― yet cases abroad show that age is no excuse.
Telmex chairman Carlos Slim, the second-richest man in the world, is 74 years old but operates both a Facebook page and a Twitter account (240,000 followers), while financial gurus such as Warren Buffett and George Soros ― who have both reached 83 this year ― also communicate through Facebook. Buffett has 830,000 followers on Twitter alone.
Hence, more so than age, the local billionaires’ lack of SNS activity can be attributed to the social environment and their desire to avoid the risk of becoming embroiled in controversy.
For instance, Shinsegae vice chairman Chung Yong-jin, who was once a pioneer of using SNS, got caught up in a verbal battle via Twitter with AfreecaTV (former Nowcom) ex-chief executive Moon Yong-sik, while Korean Air executive vice president Cho Hyun-min also experienced a similar verbal scuffle in 2012 with the owner of a travel goods shopping mall over Jin Air’s cabin crew uniform.
Chung stopped tweeting in October 2011 and deleted his Facebook page in 2013.
By The Korea Herald Special Investigative Team