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.
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."
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.
"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?"
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