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Reining In South Korea's Chaebol

A presidential campaign provokes a debate about the power of South Korea’s conglomerates
Reining In South Korea's Chaebol
Illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Lee Bok Sun is planning to close her 28-year-old fruit store in Seoul for good. Many of her customers have switched to a new hypermarket owned by one of South Korea’s chaebol, the family-controlled business groups that dominate the economy. “My baby brother gave me the money to start this shop to thank me for the years I worked as a seamstress to pay for his college fees,” says Lee, 63, as she counts the day’s earnings from a battered Nike shoebox. “He wouldn’t have gotten his job at a chaebol without that degree, and now I’m being put out of business by the same system I worked so hard to get him into.”

Since Lee moved to Seoul to sew clothes at 15, the business empires that include Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor have lifted the economy 22 places, to 15th in the World Bank’s ranking. As Koreans prepare to vote for a new president on Dec. 19, the public’s attention is focused on the cost of Korea’s chaebol-led success: a widening income gap, struggling small businesses, and the highest suicide rate in the developed world. “To outsiders, it may seem like the economy is doing relatively well, but here are people stuck in the cracks of society where chaebol wealth was supposed to trickle down to,” says Kim Woo Chan, a professor at Korea University Business School in Seoul.