South Korea’s Chaebol Dynasty

             Emerging from the ashes of a destructive civil war that had devastated every aspect of the nation’s economy, South Korea seemed doomed to becoming yet another third-world country trapped in an eternal vicious cycle of poverty. Emphasizing the fact that South Korea lacked both industrial infrastructure and abundant natural resources, economic speculators were skeptical of South Korea’s chances for success. Yet with pure grit and determination, South Korea was able to make the miraculous transformation from a poverty stricken nation to an economic powerhouse, over the course of 40 years.

             Part of the secret to South Korea’s unbelievable “zero to hero” story was President Park Jung Hee’s strategic decision to provide generous funds to family owned businesses, commonly known as “chaebols”. The authoritarian government of President Park realized that centering the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few wealthy conglomerates was necessary in order to compete in a globalized economy. President Park, an iron hearted man who emphasized prosperity over equality, believed that if he was able to foster the growth of the chaebols, a certain amount of wealth would trickle down to the middle and low class civilians. To a certain extent, President Park’s dream of a “trickle down economy” was a success. South Korea now boasts one of the strongest economies in the world and is a proud member of the G-20. However such rapid economic development came at a hefty price. Failing to give sufficient consideration to how the enlarged economic pie would be distributed among different social groups, South Korea’s economy soon fell victim to the insatiable greed of the corporate plutocracy. President Park had created a behemoth that was beyond his control. The era of chaebols had officially begun the moment these mega-conglomerates became “too big to fail”

              While strolling down the brightly lit streets of Gangnam, it’s easy to get confused whether you’re living in the Republic of Korea or the Republic of Samsung. Samsung motors, Samsung life insurance, Samsung TV, Samsung card, Samsung mobile, Samsung construction and even a pair of Samsung sports teams; South Korea’s number one conglomerate has written its name down on literally every single marketable product that exists in a capitalist society. Although the thought of Apple making apartments, Sony providing life insurance, and Google creating its own sports team sounds preposterous to many foreigners, such absurdity becomes reality in South Korea. Samsung’s growing influence has infiltrated so deeply into the various sectors of the nation’s economy that the South Korean government has been largely ineffective at regulating this wild beast. Considering that Samsung alone is responsible for roughly 20% of South Korea’s GDP[1] and that the top ten chaebol groups control 80% of the South Korean economy[2], it’s not a surprise that conglomerates have been able to evade governmental regulation with relative ease for the past four decades. With the chaebol groups hoarding the majority of the nation’s wealth, life has become increasingly tougher for smaller enterprises that do not possess the financial power to compete with corporate colossuses like Samsung and Hyundai.

              Even though most South Koreans are fully aware of the fact that chaebols utilize monopolistic methods in order to corner markets and eliminate competition, they rarely criticize such blatant violation of anti-trust policies mainly because the chaebols have been the driving force of South Korea’s unprecedented economic growth for the past several years. “As long as the chaebols continue to bring wealth and prosperity to the country, Koreans don’t feel the need for government intervention.” says Professor Kim Wu Chan of Korea University.[3] Yet what many South Koreans are less aware of is the fact that small and medium-sized enterprises employ 90% of the South Korean workforce.[4] Simply put, the chaebol groups are only generating wealth and prosperity for a minor portion of the South Korean population, while pushing smaller businesses to the brink of bankruptcy. By selling products at ridiculously low prices that smaller enterprises can’t hope to match, chaebols have cruelly driven hundreds of hardworking middle class civilians out of business. In 2011, when Lotte began selling buckets of fried chicken at a knock-down price of 5000 won, hundreds of chicken restaurant managers trembled in fear as they helplessly watched their sales plummet. Although Lotte eventually caved into negative public opinion and stopped the deal after a week, the Lotte chicken incident clearly illustrates the dominant position of the chaebols over smaller firms.

             Chaebols not only eliminate the process of healthy competition, but also destroy future potential, stifle entrepreneurship, and discourage innovation. Dismayed by the indomitable barriers the chaebols have erected in order to keep ambitious competitors away from their respective corporate kingdoms, aspiring entrepreneurs lack the courage to begin their own businesses in fear of pulling the lion’s tail. In South Korean society, stability is everything. Why provoke the chaebols to wrath when you can simply work for them? This passive mindset is the reason why so few Korean start-ups grow to become profitable independent SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). In order for South Korea to remain competitive in a globalized economy, it needs to cultivate and encourage the growth of its SMEs. South Korea will never be able to keep pace with constantly changing global trends unless there’s continuous innovation. And what better environment for such continuous innovation than a highly competitive market composed of hundreds of independent SMEs each endeavoring to produce the best product possible? What the SMEs lack in size, they make up for in flexibility. And it’s the dynamism of the SMEs that will propel South Korea into another era of economic prosperity.

             There’s no denying the fact that the chaebols had played a crucial role in stimulating South Korea’s economy when times were rough. However, if South Korea is going to take the next step forward, it must no longer rely solely on the economic strength of a handful of mega-conglomerates. No doubt, the task of challenging the superiority of the well-established chaebol groups seems quite daunting at first. Yet, even as we speak, South Korea is moving in the right direction. The number of “one man creative enterprises” has risen by 13% in the past year to 296,317.[5] President Park Geun Hye officially announced that she will make it her personal mission to create jobs for aspiring entrepreneurs.[6] And an increasing number of SMEs have been making significant progress in the tech fields of social media and gaming, where the only factor that limits your success is your own imagination and creative ability. Despite their humble beginnings, companies like Kakao Talk, NCsoft, Naver, and Humax have all managed to become part of the “trillion won club”. None of these firms is controlled by chaebols. They are all independent SMEs that have achieved a certain amount of success through innovation and creativity. Although the era of chaebols is still far from over, a light at the end of the tunnel has finally revealed itself to the South Korean public. What the South Korean economy needs most right now are ambitious and innovative young minds, not corporate wage slaves bound by loyalty to the chaebols.

[1] Harlan, Chico. “In South Korea, the Republic of Samsung.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 02 Mar. 2014

[2] “Top Ten Chaebol Now Almost 80% of Korean Economy : Business : Home.” Hankyurae News N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

[3] 곽, 정수. “‘범 4대 재벌가’ 자산, 국가 전체 자산의 25% 달해 : 경제일반 : 경제 : 뉴스 : 한겨레.” 한겨례, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

[4] “Chaebols: Kings of the Conglomerates.” Campden FB. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

[5] 이, 규성. “1인창조기업, 문화콘텐츠 생산 주역으로 ‘부상’ – 아시아경제.” 아시아 경제, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

[6] Lee, Yoolim. “Business / Technology.” The Seattle Times. N.p., 18 July 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.


The Gull that Flies Lowest

             In a world where everyone strives to become “the gull that flies highest”, people often forget that it’s equally important to fly at low altitudes from time to time. We’ve become so obsessed with revering the admirable feats of society’s Jonathan Livingstons that the beauty of leading a simple life has been lost. Nowadays it’s all about dreaming big and endeavoring to find a grander meaning to life. What all these potential high-flyers fail to realize, however, is that life doesn’t always need to have a bigger meaning. Sometimes life can be simple. While some critics narrow-mindedly argue that such simplicity is pathetic and mundane, such a view is greatly disrespectful to the inexplicable complexities that surround our everyday, ordinary lives. There’s nothing wrong with being a “normal” seagull; it’s just another way of enjoying your finite time on Earth.

             What I find rather offensive about Richard Bach’s novel is that it implies that gulls who choose to marry, raise their children in a loving environment, struggle to put food on the table, and live an ordinary life are pitiful, while gulls like Jonathan Livingston, who do not give heed to materialistic needs and search for a grander meaning in life through the mastery of flight, are respectable. Searching for a grander meaning in life and overcoming harsh conditions in order to master a profession is, no doubt, a handsome way of enjoying one’s life for some people. Yet this does not necessarily mean that those without temptations to break through conformity and challenge limitations have meaningless lives. An ordinary seagull’s life is beautiful in its own way. It might not be as extraordinary as that of Jonathan’s, but it’s nonetheless meaningful. Not everyone wishes for greatness. Some choose to lead modest lives without being bound by grandiose dreams or ambitions. If Jonathan Livingston fails to acknowledge this simple truth, then he is a fool.

             The normal seagulls that Jonathan deems to be ignorant lead their lives according to their own set of values. They endure great pain to care for their beloved children. They work with tenacity to keep the bellies of their loved ones content. They fight amongst each other, while at times sharing love. Jonathan Livingston will never experience such life’s complexities. He is too constricted inside his divine world that he does not understand the sophistication entwined with simplicity. The gull that flies highest may see the furthest, but it’s the gull that flies lowest that sees most precisely. Gulls like Jonathan Livingston often look too far that they forget what’s going on near around them. Although they gaze at the faraway horizon, they fail to give heed to what’s going on right beneath their feet. Life is full of small yet meaningful moments. Giving birth to a child isn’t an immensely life-changing accomplishment, but it’s meaningful because one can see first-hand the beauty of a newborn baby. Marrying another person isn’t exactly a groundbreaking achievement, but it’s significant because one can experience the most complex of human emotions called love. Yet, the Jonathan Livingstons of this world discard such moments from their interest. Failing to enjoy these small moments while gazing at the far horizon, seeking for a deeper meaning to one’s existence while ignoring the present, is in my opinion, foolhardy.

             When looking at the big picture, it’s probably seagulls like Jonathan Livingston, celebrated for their individual creativity and integrity, who will leave their names behind in history textbooks. Yet it’s important to never forget that a picture can’t exist without the harmonious interaction of individual dots and lines. Though these small specks and thin streaks seem insignificant, they are, in their own simple way, a meaningful part of a masterpiece called the world. I see such dots and lines every day, busily running about, toiling to play their respective parts. Firemen, policemen, entrepreneurs, plumbers, farmers, mechanics, teachers, soldiers, shop owners, factory workers, housewives: many of these people don’t embark on a journey to search for a bigger meaning to life. They don’t do so not because they don’t have dreams and ambitions, but because they don’t feel the need for a grander meaning in life. They’re content with what they have. My mother is a housewife who leads a life as ordinary as can be. She manages the household, she takes care of my father, and she tries to provide the best education for my sister and I. She is, in other words, just like Jonathan’s own mother. Yet my mother always says she leads a meaningful life. “I have a caring husband who works hard for his family and two children that love me dearly. What more do I need?” One doesn’t need to necessarily fly high and look far in order to search for a meaning in life. Sometimes the answer is nearby.

             Our world is in need of a balance between high-flyers and low-flyers. However contemporary society often tends to undervalue the lives of the low-flyers for being simplistic and unsophisticated. Yet it’s thanks to these ordinary low-flying seagulls that humanity has continued its arduous march to the future. Do not be tricked into believing that those who seem to lead mediocre lives are ignorant and pathetic. There is an inconceivable beauty to living such a simple life. Though the dreams of the “ordinary seagulls” aren’t as grand as that of Jonathan Livingston, they are dreams nonetheless. The divine, the noble, the grand, and the high-flyers aren’t the only beings that live meaningfully.  


What it Means to be Me

I once read, while skimming through a book about reptiles, that it’s impossible to determine a chameleon’s real skin color; even after a chameleon dies, its skin cells continue to respond to its external surroundings, forever changing color until the entire corpse decomposes into microscopic particles. I’m afraid to say that I’ve lived most of my life as a chameleon. I am very capable at changing my personal colors to match my surroundings. In the classroom I am a thoughtful student. With my friends I act thoughtlessly. In front of my parents, I am an obedient son. With my sister I turn into a hostile barbarian. I swiftly and effortlessly shift my personalities in order to perfectly adapt to my changing atmosphere. Yet, among these different colors, I was never sure which the real “me” was. Unfortunately, this loss of identity is much more than just another personal problem of mine. It has become a universal epidemic of the 21st century that plagues a majority of teenagers living in modern society.

This epidemic is probably the reason why colleges covet students who are able to express themselves in the truest light: the chameleons that still have the ability to transition from black to white, but never forget what they’re actually made up of. It’s also the reason why most students struggle to write personal essays for their college applications: they’ve tried so hard to be someone they’re not for most of their lives that they’ve forgotten who they really are. When I was young, Korean society tended to look down upon introverts as people who were weak, fragile, and pathetic. My grandfather, who was a major proponent of such extrovertism, always tried to get rid of the shy boy inside of me. I was forced to go to debate academies in order to improve my presentation skills. I was reprimanded repeatedly if I spoke in a feeble voice. A charismatic, vocal leader was what my grandfather wanted me to be. And, for most of my life, I tried my best to live up to such expectations.  Unfortunately I wasn’t the extrovert my grandfather thought I was. In reality, I was a timid boy who enjoyed thinking more than speaking and writing more than debating.I was the type of guy who’d prefer spending time with a few close friends to going to a rambunctious party. Eventually I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never possess the natural leadership skills required of me. And when I came upon this realization, I was neither disappointed nor embarrassed. I was relieved. I had finally found my true color.

They say to “Change yourself if you wish to change the world”, but I believe otherwise. Be yourself, and if society doesn’t accept that, change the world. Overcoming social prejudices and staying true to yourself is no doubt, a difficult feat to achieve. If there’s anything I’d learned through my agonizing years of training to become an extrovert, it’s the paradoxical truth that “it’s easy to be someone else; it’s hard to be yourself.” But in the end, you’ll never be happy in someone else’s clothes. In the end, it’s always important to “Remember what it was to be me”.


On Starting A Blog

In an ever-changing world that is ours, we rarely get enough time to reflect back on our lives. Especially for a high school student, “stopping to smell the roses” is considered an inefficient use of one’s time. With Facebook notifications popping up every second, smart phones vibrating at the latest Twitter update, and a torrent of information flooding the web, I often get the feeling that our lives are accelerating at an alarming rate. It’s all about speed nowadays and “slow and steady” rarely wins the race.

While living in such a fast-paced society, it’s important to slam the brakes once in a while to stop yourself from spiraling out of control. This is why writing is such a crucial part of my life. Writing serves as the anchor that prevents my identity from drifting away into the vast sea without a specified designation. When I write, at least for an hour or two, I am able to take a step back and casually contemplate on various ideas that I would have otherwise never thought about. The beauty of writing comes from the fact that you can express the deepest emotions, transcend time and location, and talk about contemporary issues without moving anything but your fingers.

I started this blog in hopes of storing the few genuine thoughts that enter my mind every now and then in a personal jar; to safeguard them from the howling winds of the harsh reality that I live in. So here it is: my thoughts on everything, a high school student’s perspective of the world around him.