'Chaebol sniper' reformist becomes S. Korea's anti-trust chief

 17 May 2017 - 12:29

'Chaebol sniper' reformist becomes S. Korea's anti-trust chief
File Photo: AFP.

AFP

Seoul: An activist economist renowned for his relentless campaign to reform South Korea's scandal-mired business conglomerates such as Samsung was appointed Wednesday as the head of the country's powerful anti-trust regulator.

Kim Sang-Jo, nicknamed "chaebol sniper" for his sharp criticism of the family-controlled empires, was named as chairman of the Fair Trade Commission (FTC), indicating that President Moon Jae-In plans to make good on election promises to bring the business powerhouses to heel after a string of corruption cases.

"The country's economy has lost much of its past dynamism," Kim told journalists after his appointment was announced. "One of the main reasons is that markets are not fair.

"I'll do my best to restore a fair market so that every economic player can achieve their full potential," he said.

The likes of Samsung and Hyundai, sprawling family-led conglomerates known as "chaebols", were crucial to the South's rapid economic transformation in the 1960s and 70s from the ruins of war.

But they have also turned into objects of public scorn, accused of choking off innovation and engaging in corrupt business practices to ensure the families retain control of their empires.

Cosy ties between chaebols and the political elite were exposed by a high-profile scandal that brought down Moon's predecessor Park Geun-Hye, who was sacked in March.

Centre-leftist Moon has vowed to bolster the FTC in order to monitor the chaebols and step up measures to stop them exploiting small businesses and subcontractors.

On the campaign trail he vowed to squeeze the four biggest conglomerates -- Samsung, Hyundai, SK and LG -- labelling them "obstacles to economic growth". Moon also suggested he would revive the FTC's investigation bureau, scrapped in 2005 in a move towards deregulation.

Among the casualties in the Park scandal was detained Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong, who has been put on trial for allegedly bribing Park's secret confidante in exchange for government favours -- including state approval for a controversial merger of two Samsung units seen as a key step to ensure a smooth transfer of power to him.

Chaebol reform has been pledged many times before -- even by Park, and by Moon's own party -- but without tangible success.

But analysts say there is more momentum for change now, after millions of people took to the streets to demand Park's removal, many of them also targeting the chaebols.

Kim previously told journalists that a Moon government would introduce reforms to make corporate governance more transparent and better protect minority shareholders' rights.