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.
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Isolated at home
These days, basking in sales and acclaim from readers resentful of the power of the chaebol, Kim listens to Beethoven in the wooden house with traditional tiled roof that he designed in this forested town about 30 miles east of Seoul.Skip to next paragraph
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"He's got a lot of money off the book," says a Samsung Electronics spokesman, James Chung. "We are not angry at him. We are ignoring him." Mr. Chung denies threats to the media and recoils at Kim's description of authoritarian attitudes. "It's very ridiculous," says Chung. "We do have a lot of talented people, including 3,000 who hold doctorates."
There is no doubt, though, of Samsung's sensitivities. The group sued Michael Breen, who writes for the English-language Korea Times, for a tongue-in-cheek column last year in which he imagined Christmas gifts sent from the rich and powerful officials of Samsung.
Samsung asked for $1 million in damages but dropped the suit after receiving four apologies, twice in the paper and twice in letters from Mr. Breen.
"They think I'm some kind of bad guy, and I've got to be taught," says Breen, author of "The Koreans," about cultural and social mores. "They can behave one way in Korea, but they have an international face. Their behavior in Korea has always been harsh."
'I had to go to the foreign press'
Kim agrees. That's why "I had no choice but to go to the foreign press in order to wake up Koreans," he says. "Everything is closed. I want to reveal everything. What I'm saying can make me look like a traitor."
Listening to music, caring for flowers and a rock garden he's built behind the house, looking after eight dogs and three parakeets, Kim says his life is not as pleasant as it might seem. "Sometimes I am lonely," says Kim, who is "twice divorced, from the same woman," a painter. He has two sons, one a doctor, the other a student in New York. "Sometimes I am angry."
Kim, who hails from the southwestern city of Kwangju, a region noted for opposition to the government, was in high school during the Kwangju revolt 30 years ago, when some 200 people, mostly students, were killed. He spent the revolt in his parents' home, "underground," but did participate later in demonstrations at Korea University in Seoul.
Commissioned as a legal officer after graduating from the university's law school, he was at the Navy's headquarters in the southeastern port of Chinhae when the capital was shaken by riots in 1987 and President Chun had to agree to a new Constitution that provided for democratic elections.
It was after he had been hired as a hotshot lawyer by Samsung in 1997 that he felt the urge to rebel by inciting legal action. "I cannot stand by and see what's going on," he says. "Everything is so rotten."
Kim denies speaking out for publicity. "I am risking my life," he says. He worries he'll be prosecuted for speaking out. "Who," he asks plaintively, as a tiny schnauzer snaps at his heels, "will take care of my dogs and plants if I go to jail?"
Related stories of interest:
- Korea targets corruption at automaker Hyundai
- S. Korea bars secret video of the North
- South Korea news coverage