- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

SEOUL White-collar crimes by leading businessmen are hardly unusual in South Korea, but a gangster-style abduction and beating purportedly administered by the chairman of one of the nation’s top 10 conglomerates has enraged the public.

Following a bar brawl in which his 22-year-old son was punched in the eye, Kim Seung-youn, 55, chairman of the giant Hanwha Group, purportedly stormed into a Seoul karaoke bar with a squad of bodyguards armed with steel pipes and stun guns to confront his son’s assailants.

The enraged chairman and his henchman reportedly abducted the men, driving them to a remote mountain area where they were beaten up. According to reports, Mr. Kim has denied taking part in the beatings himself, though his claim is contradicted by the victims’ statements.

The case has whipped up a public outcry, dominating the news for days.

Mr. Kim was questioned by police from Sunday afternoon until the early hours of yesterday. Seoul police, under pressure from the public and the presidential Blue House, announced they were preparing an arrest warrant, pending “further investigations.”

Yesterday, Mr. Kim’s son, Dong-won, a Yale University student, returned to Seoul from a trip abroad to a storm of flashing cameras. He made no comment at the airport, but police have said he too will be questioned.

The purported attack took place in March. News only broke last week after newspapers printed interviews with the purported victims.

The Hanwha Group, founded in 1952, has interests in finance, petrochemicals and leisure. It operates Galleria, Korea’s most luxurious department store chain, while its Korea First life insurer has assets in the billions of dollars. It also owns a professional baseball team.

In Korea, the chairmen of family-run conglomerates wield immense clout.

Lee Keun-hee, head of the Samsung Group, is sometimes dubbed “Korea’s most powerful man.” The most famous chairman of all, Chung Ju-young, the late Hyundai patriarch, was known for wrestling with his employees when in a good mood, and beating them when not. More recently, one chairman, late for a commercial flight, called the airport and demanded the aircraft wait. It did.

While corporate crime is widespread, the law hangs lightly over these mighty figures. Chung Mong-koo, head of Hyundai Motor Group, is at large while appealing his conviction on a $90 million embezzlement charge. Chey Tae-won, chairman of S.K. Corp., Korea’s largest refiner, was found guilty of defrauding his company of more than a billion dollars in 2003, but despite having his appeal rejected, he remains free and at the head of his group.

The Hanwha case, however, is different.

“This is really unusual. It has nothing to do financial scandals,” said Hwang Ju-myung, founder of Hwang, Mok, Park, a leading Seoul law firm. “He could end up with a suspended sentence, but public sentiment against him is really bad, and I don’t think the authorities can withstand the public criticism.”

As the wheels of justice turn, Mr. Kim may be hoping that his company continues to prosper: Chairmen of companies that go bust face the full weight of the law.

Kim Woo-choong, the former chairman of the now-defunct Daewoo Group, is in jail despite ill health and faces $24 billion in fines. The group foundered in 1999 under the weight of $80 billion in debt and the world’s then-largest bankruptcy. Kim Woo-choong fled abroad, but returned last summer and was promptly detained.

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