What Are Chaebols In Korea?

What Are Chaebols In Korea?

The word chaebol (재벌) is a combination of the Korean words 재 (wealth) and 벌 (clan or clique). Korea’s chaebol are family-owned businesses (비지니스) that typically have subsidiaries across diverse industries.

Traditionally (전통적으로), the chaebol (재벌) corporate structure places members of the founding family in ownership (사업주) positions, allowing them to maintain control. They have relied on close cooperation with the government (정부) for their success: decades of support in the form of subsidies, loans and tax incentives (세금 혜택) helped them become pillars of the Korean economy (경제).


This group of massive, mostly family-run business conglomerates (복합 기업), dominates Korea’s economy (경제) and wields extraordinary influence over its politics (정치). These powerful entities played a central role in transforming what was once a humble agrarian market (농경시장) into one of the world’s largest economies.


The Korean government (정부) has generously supported the chaebol since the early 1960s. However (그렇지만), in recent years chaebols have come under fire amid a slowing Korean economy and following a series of high-profile corruption scandals (부정부패).


Who Are The Largest Chaebols In Korea?

Samsung (삼성)

Founded in 1938, Samsung Group is Korea’s most profitable chaebol, but it began as a small company that exported goods such as fruit (과일), dried fish (어포) and noodles (면) primarily to China (중국). Today the conglomerate is run by second- and third-generation members of the Lee family, the second-wealthiest family in Asia (아시아), according to Forbes (포브스).

Hyundai (현대)

Hyundai Group was a small construction business when it opened in 1947 but grew immensely to have dozens of subsidiaries across the automotive (자동차), shipbuilding (조선), financial (파이낸스) and electronics (전자) industries.

SK Group (SK 그룹)

Also known as SK Holdings, dates back to the early 1950s when the Chey family acquired Sunkyong Textiles. Today, the chaebol oversees around eighty subsidiaries, which operate primarily in the energy (에너지), chemical (화학), financial (파이낸스), shipping (선박), insurance (보험) and construction (건설) industries. It is best known for SK Telecom, the largest wireless carrier in South Korea.


An Example Of Chaebol Controversies :

Nut Rage Incident

On December 5th 2014, Heather Cho a businesswoman who is the daughter of the then Korean Air chairman and CEO Cho Yang Ho, boarded Korean Air Flight 86 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, destined for Incheon International Airport in Seoul. Prior to takeoff, she was served macadamia nuts in a closed bag rather than on a plate.

Upon being served the nuts in a bag, Cho rebuked flight attendant Kim Do Hee and called over cabin crew chief Park Chang Jin to complain about this matter.  It was alleged that under Cho’s orders, the chief was forced to kneel down before her and beg for forgiveness. Cho repeatedly struck Chang Jin’s knuckles with the edge of a digital tablet and immediately dismissed him.

Cho ordered the chief to get off the plane, requiring it to taxi back to the airport’s gate. The incident created a delay of approximately 20 minutes for the flight with 250 people on board. The chief allegedly initially agreed with executives to refrain from making public statements and disclosing the incident to officials but when he and the flight attendant heard about Cho’s apparent attempts to spread false rumours of sexual relations between the flight attendant and chief, he decided to file an official complaint.

Are There Korean Celebrities Who Are Chaebols?

Super Junior’s Choi Si Won (최시원)

Si Won is one of the hottest idols ever, however he is also one of the richest. His father is the former CEO of the incredibly famous pharmaceutical company (제약회사) in Korea, Boryung Medicine (보령제약). Si Won himself also has an enviable collection of expensive property in Seoul, Korea.

TWICE’s Jeong Yeon (정연)

Jeong Yeon is perhaps the richest out of all the girls in TWICE. Jeong Yeon’s father is a famed restaurateur and top chef specializing in intricate and flavourful Korean cuisine. As such, she is surely an heiress (상속녀) to a mountain of wealth (재산).

GFRIEND’s Umji (엄지)

Umji’s father is the most sought after dental surgeon (치과의사) in Korea. He also holds a high position in the Moa Dental group which comprises over 60 medical practices. Considering the exorbitance of the healthcare (헬스케어) industry, her family is undoubtedly very well-off.


K-Dramas With A Chaebol Storyline :

Graceful Family (2019)

Mo Seok Hee (Im Soo Hyang) is the only daughter of the MC Group, a large chaebol. Her grandfather is the founder and majority shareholder of the chaebol and her father, Mo Cheol Hee, is the President. 15 years ago as a young teenager, Seok Hee was forced by her father to move to the United States after her mother was murdered.

Now, 15 years later, Seok Hee has become a beautiful and intelligent woman with a strong personality. She acts tough and arrogant but hides her kindness and suffering over her mother’s death. She comes back to Korea after learning that her grandfather is in a coma and hospitalized in Seoul in a facility owned by MC Group, evading her family’s efforts to prevent her return.


Crash Landing On You (2019)

Yoon Se Ri (Son Ye Jin) is a South Korean chaebol heiress to the Queen’s Group. However, her existence threatens her elder half-brothers and she is intensely disliked by her stepmother so she steps away from the family business and successfully founds her own fashion and beauty company, Seri’s Choice which makes her independently wealthy. Se Ri’s father, who was recently released from jail and can no longer run the Queen’s Group, wants Se Ri to take over. He favors her over her brothers, whose leadership and skills are no match to her talent and business acumen.

As the Queen’s Group prepares to make the official announcement, Se Ri goes out paragliding to test her latest line of extreme sportswear and is caught in a sudden tornado, which blows her over the Korean Demilitarized Zone and into North Korea, where she has a fateful encounter with Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin).


Mine (2021)

The series glimpses into the high society’s lifestyle and follows strong and ambitious women who are trying to find the real ‘mine’.

Seo Hi Soo (Lee Bo Young), a former top actress and now the second daughter-in-law of Hyowon Group and Jung Seo Hyun (Kim Seo Hyung), the first daughter-in-law of Hyowon Group are trying to find their true identities.


We hope that this was a very insightful post to all of you and that you understand deeper on Chaebols and the significance they have in Korea!

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