South Korean whistleblower Kim Yong-chul breaks silence on Samsung
South Korean whistleblower Kim Yong-chul, who has written a book about his efforts to expose alleged corruption and greed at Samsung, faces censure and isolation.
Guksu, South Korea
The career of Kim Yong-chul began imploding six years ago when he quit as chief lawyer for the Samsung Group, by far South Korea's largest chaebol, or conglomerate, in rage and frustration over the corporate corruption and greed he says he saw around him.Skip to next paragraph
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Once famed as a prosecutor who had won the conviction of a former president, Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, on corruption charges, he crusaded against his onetime employers – and nearly brought down Samsung's top boss and Korea's richest man, Lee Kun-hee.
Mr. Lee, convicted for tax evasion and placed on probation, got a full pardon in December from Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, a onetime top executive of the Hyundai group.
Now Lee rides high again, restored as chairman of Samsung Electronics, the centerpiece of the group, which employs 170,000 people of the 270,000 in an empire that accounts for one-fifth of Korea's gross domestic product. And his son, Lee Jae-yong, banished in the scandal to a post in China, now is Samsung Electronics' chief operating officer, on course to take over.
Mr. Kim's one-man crusade makes him an anomaly in a Confucian society in which obedience to parents and teachers is ingrained in childhood. On a broader level, he's a pariah in a highly conservative culture in which employees at other companies deride him for betraying his bosses, the system – and, in a sense, the country, and the corporate structure that keeps it afloat.
So unthinkable was Kim's offense that the president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, a Korean, repeatedly rejected requests by foreign correspondents to invite him as a speaker at the club.
All of which leads Kim to conclude, "Our society is so corrupt, and people are blindfolded because everyone is living well and people are greedy."
He sees Korea, dominated by Samsung, several other large chaebol, and scores of lesser ones, as forming a class structure as rigid and cumbersome as the caste system in India. "In Korea we thought there was no class anymore," he says. "We gained power, but now, in the sense of haves and less-haves, everyone is so crazy about money and power."
Kim has been deep in the muck of controversy ever since exposing massive corruption within the organization that paid him for seven years.
The furor has intensified of late as a result of sales of his bestselling book, "Thinking of Samsung" ("Samsungul Sanggak Handa"), a 474-page account of all of Samsung's wrongs that Sahoi Pyoungnon Publishing says has sold 150,000 copies so far.
The book alleges that top officials stole money from Samsung subsidiaries, offered bribes to politicians and prosecutors, among others, and shredded books.
"I'm an invisible man," says Kim, ignored by news organizations fearful that Samsung will pull advertising at the mere mention of his name or book. "Samsung is buying everything" – a reference to an empire that reaches into manufacturing, finance, commerce, entertainment, and journalism.
At Sahoi Pyoungnon, editor Kim Tae-gyin says that "Korean newspapers were afraid to advertise this book because Samsung was very uncomfortable." Instead, he says, "common readers publicized this book with Twitter and blogs."