|KL&P head Kim Byoung-joo|
Who is Kim Woo-choong? He is the former founder and chairman of the now defunct Daewoo group. That’s his official title, but a debate is brewing on whether he should be known as a victim, a hero or an outlaw following his recent public appearance.
Breaking a 15-year silence, the former chairman recently came out with a new book. In it, he argues that the Korean government forced Daewoo group to shut down in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis.
Kim argues that if the government had not taken such action, Daewoo would have survived the crisis, and perhaps would be thriving to this day. Thus, Kim paints himself as a victim of injustice.
Then what about as a tragic hero?
That is actually how Kim is still viewed by many Koreans.
Going back in time, Daewoo’s demise was something no one wanted to think about. The impact had been simply too dreadful. The Korean government had to do what it had to in order to limit the economic effect of Daewoo’s irregularities. Kim, at the time, actually had a choice ― that is, he could have chosen to walk the more painful path involving downsizing and streamlining. Yet, he clung to the myth of being too big to fail.
For five years following Daewoo’s demise, Kim went into hiding, seeking to avoid charges of corporate malpractice. Even though he was granted a presidential pardon several years ago, he still owes nearly 18 trillion won ($17.6 billion) in fines for falsifying 41 trillion won worth of corporate financial records, based on which he took out some 10 trillion won in loans and smuggled 25 trillion won overseas.
The crimes were staggering, but to Koreans, Kim remained a living legend who had contributed immensely to the nation’s modernization. Daewoo was Korea’s most globalized business group at the time, and its founder continued to reign as a tragic hero.
Also, as we know from plenty of cases in history, some heroes get caught between shifting paradigms. Daewoo is a symbol of the old Korean paradigm in which big businesses expanded based on a continuous flow of bank loans that were offered based on the size of the business. If you’re big, you can get more loans. With more loans, you can grow even bigger.
That cycle was broken in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, and Daewoo was at the center of this painful transition. The hero who had fought hard had to go because his game was rapidly becoming outdated. Koreans seemed willing to forgive him ― not necessarily in legal terms, but at least in their hearts ― for his contributions to the economy and the country.
Then last but not least, is Kim a greedy outlaw? There is no denying that there are rumors going around that the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol may have been Kim’s motive for coming out of the shadows. The Yoo Byung-eun Law, named after the deceased owner of the sunken ship, may soon come into being. Under it, authorities can go after the possessions of family members of those who have accumulated wealth illegitimately.
If this is indeed why Kim broke his 15-year silence, it would be a shame. It would also be a harsh wakeup call for Koreans who have until now worshipped the man as a pioneer and hero ― a villain people wanted to sympathize with.
If he has chosen to come out after all these years to complain about how he was the government’s fall guy, to portray himself as a victim of injustice, and above all, to protect his remaining wealth, this is a scheme that will inevitably backfire. By attempting to milk public sympathy, Kim will no longer be the public’s tragic hero, and worse, he may become branded as nothing more than yet another greedy corporate outlaw.
By Kim Byoung-joo
(Head of strategic consulting firm KL&P)