Kim Seung-noun

Dec 12, 2008
*Special to asia!
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Will Paris Hilton's money buy her out of a 45-day jail sentence? A similar question is piquing the minds of many in South Korea, though the star in question isn’t the partying hotel heiress but the chief of one of the biggest conglomerates in the country.

In early May, Kim Seung-noun was taken to court, facing charges of assault. His case made front-page news on all Korean papers and hogged prime-time news on television. And no wonder—Kim is the chairman of the Hanwa group, a giant business group, or chaebol, whose 54 subsidiaries and associates are involved in businesses as diverse as telecommunication and banking to construction and chemical all over the world.

The circumstance of Kim’s arrest was unusual, so much so that the local media had compared it to a bad plot out of a gangster movie.

Kim, 55, has a 22-year-old son Dong-won, who is studying at Yale University. The younger Kim, looking for good time, got into a fight in a karaoke bar on March 8 and was beaten up. He went home and told his old man who flew into a rage. Kim senior then mobiles his bodyguards (a euphemism for hired thugs) and raided the karaoke bar, from which he "took control" of six waiters whom he brought into a mountain hideaway where he beat them up. Repeatedly. One waiter, presumably the man responsible for causing the most harm to the younger Kim, was eventually sent to hospital with cracked ribs.

Kim confessed having hit the workers. But he denied some of the more serious charges: where he was supposed to have used a 150-metre steel pipe as a club, as well as an electric shock devise on the bar worker with the cracked ribs.

Accounts differ on whether the younger Kim had actually asked his dad for revenge (which was generally thought to be the case), or that he, according to statements by Hanwa, had merely told his father about the incident and asked for a police report to be made for him (although this begs the question as to why a 22-year-old undergrad would find it difficult to make a police report himself).

There are also allegations that the younger Kim had taken part in the beatings, at the command of his father. If he were indeed found guilty, it is quite likely that he would detained in South Korea and be expelled from Yale.

Those who know the older Kim were not surprised by his temper. Kim was born in 1952, the year his father founded the Korea Explosive Corp to make gunpowder and ammunition for the newly created South Korea, as well as for the United States forces. He then took over the company at age 29 and ran it for 26 years, muscling his way into businesses jealously held by other chaebols.

Today the renamed Hanwa is the ninth-largest chaebol in South Korea, trailing behind the behemoths such as Samsung and LG. Kim himself is said to worth at least US$1 billion. It is the same aggressiveness that made him his fortune which has now landed Kim in court, and perhaps soon in jail.

For his part, Kim would only say he had been a "silly father" and was "calm" in facing what the court would mete out. But if the sentence includes going to prison, you can bet it’s probably going to be much longer than the 45 days faced by Hilton.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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