The New York Times reports on the questions the book, entitled Think Samsung, has asked of the South Korean people. Samsung is the single largest tech company in the world by revenue, accounting for more than 20% of South Korea’s exports. But even more than that, it’s a cultural touchstone for South Koreans, a universal marker of what’s cool, what’s modern, and what’s of high quality.
So when Kim Yong-chul’s book accused the company of bribery, money laundering, evidence tampering, and assorted corruption, it was much more than a legal case. It brought to light the country’s distrust of its government, legal system, and national media, since none seemed to be willing or able to take on Samsung. And this was an outrageous amount of money being stolen or hidden:
Mr. Kim accused [Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee] and his loyal aides of
having stolen as much as 10 trillion won, or $9 billion, from Samsung
subsidiaries and stashed it in stock and bank accounts illegally opened
in the names of executives.
The book alleges that they shredded books, fabricated evidence and
bribed politicians, bureaucrats, prosecutors, judges and journalists,
mainly to ensure that they would not stand in the way of Mr. Lee’s
illegal transfer of corporate control to his only son, Lee Jae-yong, 41.
Yet the state prosecutors seemed unable to find much wrongdoing at all, surprising the man who’d seen it with his own eyes:
[State prosecutors] concluded that there was no evidence of bribery, which astonished Mr.
Kim, since he had provided a list of prosecutors whom he said he had
helped Samsung bribe while he was working there. In addition, a lawmaker
said she had once been offered a golf bag full of cash from Samsung,
and a former presidential aide said he had received and returned a cash
gift from the company.
Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung, was convicted of hiding more than $42 million from tax collection, and received nothing more than a suspended sentence. The media decided not to mention the whistle-blowing book at all, despite it achieving remarkable sales for a non-fiction book in that country. (Not a single newspaper published a review, and the only discussion of the book mentioned its sales–but not its title or author. Yeah, you read that right. They left out the title.) Even worse, the media refused to print any op-eds or articles explaining, let alone backing, Kim Yong-chul’s side, out of fear that Samsung would pull advertisements from their TV shows and newspapers.
Samsung, for their part, has mostly tried to ignore the struggle, although their vice-president for corporate communications did let loose this gem (which possibly, hopefully, sounds better in Korean). He was asked to explain why Samsung hasn’t directly addressed the charges, and said: “When you see a pile of excrement, you avoid it not because you fear it
but because it’s dirty.”
Sales of the book weren’t exactly affected; the revolutionary mystique has certainly helped sales. Kim is now working on a boycott of Samsung products, and trying to have his book published internationally. Meanwhile, the South Koreans are trying to figure out if they can trust the most powerful people in their country.