Flaws in Korea in spite of a cutting edge

By Anna Fifield
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/1/4e7b6354-b073-11db-8a62-0000779e2340.html
Published: January 30 2007 18:24 | Last updated: January 30 2007 18:24

Diamond Dilemma
Shaping Korea for the 21st Century
By Tariq Hussain
Published in Korean by JoongAng Random House; available in English from www.lulu.com/diamonddilemma, $18.95

One of the biggest surprises when listening to Korean executives discussing business in their country is the level of complacency about the need for further corporate reforms.

“We have changed so much since the financial crisis,” they regularly say, citing the establishment of audit committees and the ap­pointment of outside directors.

It is true that the 1997 crisis and the spectacular collapse of the Daewoo conglomerate preceded wide-ranging improvements in corporate governance practices. At the same time, Korean companies have metamorphosed from copycat manufacturers into world-class producers of mobile phones, computer chips and cars.

But many of the governance changes have been superficial and are aimed at appeasing shareholder de­mands without eroding the founding family’s control.

The continuing shortcomings in corporate Korea have been starkly illustrated just in the past year by scandals at the two largest chaebol conglomerates – Samsung’s chairman is suspected of consolidating family power by illegally transferring equity to his son, and the head of Hyundai Motor is facing prison for operating slush funds.

The chaebol conglomerate groups are the cornerstones of the Korean economy, but if they continue to operate in this way they will soon go from economic champions to economic millstones.

In Diamond Dilemma, Tariq Hussain, a German who speaks fluent Korean and has worked as a management consultant in Seoul for the past decade, acknowledges the significant prog-ress made by corporate Korea since the crisis.

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But, as he says in this constructive book, Korea needs continued reform to achieve its “brilliant” potential: “Korea is a diamond. It is small, tough and has proven its potential to shine,” Mr Hussain writes. “However, Korea is still unfinished. It has not yet been cut into its final shape and therefore underestimated by many who do not know it. Korea’s future could be literally bright – or the country could fail to achieve its potential and lose its shine.”

The diamond analogy on which the book, published in Korean last year and now being released in English, is predicated becomes a little strained by the end of the book. But as well as offering a concise, readable history of Korea’s astonishingly fast industrialisation from one of the world’s poorest countries half a century ago to the 10th largest economytoday, it also lays out in broad terms the areas that the nation must focus on if it is to avoid squandering its gains.

“Much of Korea’s dynamism is happening at the edges, and not at the core of the economy,” Mr Hussain says. “Korea Inc is still holding on to its old ways of doing business, and not changing fast enough to cope with necessary changes.”

Government rules and regulation remain too rigid and union militancy is still a major problem; but most of all Korea is too dependent on the chaebol and the few products they make.

If it continues on this path, Korea could fall into a German or Japanese-style rut, Mr Hussain warns. “Korea has emulated the best of Germany and Japan when it rose to prominence – it should avoid learning the worst as well,” he says, adding that Korea is already saddled with the worst aspects of each of those two countries – respectively, rigid labour unions and an overactive government.

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To ensure it continues to shine, Mr Hussain says, Korea must be more aware of the threat of China, which is catching up with Korea in almost all industries.

Second, it should stop the chaebol from falling back into their pre-crisis habits and from operating under the assumption that they are too big to fail or be challenged.

Third, Korea needs a new generation of companies that are not dependent on the government or on the chaebol to drive future growth.

Fourth, foreign direct investment remains “woefully low” because of an overactive government, un­welcoming labour unions, and continued scepticism towards foreign companies, Mr Hussain says.

Korea is now at a critical juncture where it must choose between reaching its full potential as an entire economy, rather than just a few outstanding individuals, or carrying on, missing opportunities and facing economic stagnation.

“The new way of thinking will not be about ‘trying harder’ – rather, it will be about trying a different approach: for government, chaebol owners, and labour unions to let go of their grip on the economy and society,” he says. “Only then can Korea’s economy and society overcome its rigidities, factions and pseudo- globalisation.”

Samsung’s chairman Lee Kun-hee once famously ordered his executives to overhaul the electronics company with the directive: “Change everything but your wife and kids” – a lesson the Korean economy as a whole could learn from.

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