(3) First encounter with business mentor
Once I was out of prison, I suddenly found myself a college graduate. Korea University offered to give me free credits for all my missed classes. The reason was that they wanted me out of their school, as quickly as possible.
They didn’t want me causing anymore trouble or embarrassment. My criminal record stated that I was imprisoned for “inciting rebellion against the state” and therefore, whenever I wanted to go beyond a 2-kilometer radius from where I lived, I was obligated to report to the local police station.
My interest in business and economics amplified. While in prison, I read a lot on both subjects because I thought this was where Korea needed the most focus and improvement. Back then Korea was a developing country with a per capita income of roughly $100.
Unemployment was rampant, and society was teeming with disgruntled, highly skilled, but penniless adults; even those with college degrees from the best schools were unable to find decent jobs.
My friends from the student activist days entered politics, and many of them encouraged me to do so as well. But I figured I could always enter politics later.
First, I wanted to experience business. I believed this was where I could really get involved and make a difference. I proceeded to submit applications to various companies. Interviews normally came next, but I could never get that far, as they would always first run a background check.
Whenever the company ran a background check, my criminal record would pop up and my application would immediately be revoked. I could feel an invisible hand, a master puppeteer checking my every move.
The state was always there, in every corner, preventing me from getting a job and pursuing my dream. After I repeatedly failed to get an interview, the extent of the state’s grip on my life began to frighten me.
As I struggled to find a job, the university stepped up and offered me an interview opportunity with a small textile company down south. I knew it wasn’t a lifetime employment opportunity, but it was better than nothing.
I could earn a living and also get away from the prying eyes of the police, at least for a bit. I accepted. The company was smaller than I had expected, and they were lost as to what kind of job I should be involved in.
It turned out that no one from Korea’s top universities had ever applied to the company. I soon found out why I was hired. One day the company boss came to me and asked if I would help prepare his son for his college entrance exam.
In short, I was hired to become a private tutor for the boss’s son. I thought for a minute and cordially refused. If my aim was to earn a living and lead a quiet life, I would probably have accepted the offer.
However, I didn’t spend months in prison and go to college to end up being a tutor in a remote city. I also had ambitions and visions about business; this company was far removed from what I had in mind. I returned to Seoul, again unemployed.
One day as I was reading the newspaper, I noticed a small advertisement. The ad had been placed by an up-and-coming construction company called Hyundai. The ad stated that Hyundai was hiring employees to work in construction abroad. Hyundai was looking for people to work at one of its sites in Thailand.
The reason I was intrigued by the ad was not that the company was Hyundai. All I knew about Hyundai was that it was a fairly new company that was doing quite well. It was the chance to go overseas that caught my interest.
During the 1960s and ’70s and even into the 1980s, the only Koreans who were permitted to travel abroad were government-sponsored students studying on state scholarships, high-ranking government officials, diplomats, and a handful of businessmen.
Even applying for a passport was considered a momentous event, and those who went abroad were sent off by a throng of well-wishers who came to the airport with flowers and confetti. But with such a high unemployment rate, lots of young people like me were seeking a way out of Korea.
A black list
In May 1965 I submitted my application to Hyundai Construction. I was not alone. Scores of other college graduates also submitted applications. I could clearly see that it wasn’t going to be easy to get the job.
Although the company was relatively small, with only ninety or so employees at the time, many college graduates were interested, since jobs were so scarce. I took the written application test and did pretty well. After taking the exam, I went home and waited.
All sorts of thoughts went through my mind. Did I pass? Would I be able to get a passport even if I didn’t pass? Would the police let me go?
A few weeks later, I received a cable that simply said, “Please report for an interview with head of personnel division. Hyundai Construction.”
I didn’t know what to think. I knew that companies usually invited applicants to report for one-on-one interviews with hiring personnel if they passed the written exam. But the cable stated that the head of the personnel division wished to see me.
I could sense that invisible hand once again. When I sat across from the head of personnel, he took out my documents and sighed. He said that my written test scores were excellent but that my record as a student activist was going to be a problem.
It turned out that he was also from Korea University and wished to help me, thus with this unusual interview request. He said that the matter hadn’t been reported yet to his superiors.
He asked me if there was anything I could do to help my case, and I assured him that I would try my best. However, at that moment, I couldn’t think of anything I could do.
I explained to my brother, and he managed to get me a reference letter from a chairman of a state-owned company who vouched for me. But I knew that the letter wasn’t going to make much difference.
Letter to President Park
Running out of options and desperate, I decided to tackle this issue head on. I sat down and started writing a letter.
It was addressed to President Park Chung-hee. In my letter, I explained the reason I had become a student council president and why I led the demonstrations.
I pointed out that I was facing many hurdles in finding a job. I closed the letter by harshly criticizing the state’s behavior in using my past to prevent me from pursuing my dreams.
A few days later, I got a call from Mr. Lee Nak-sun, who was then working as the president’s senior secretary for internal and civil affairs, and we agreed to meet. He seemed reasonable enough, but my plea had no effect on him.
He was adamant. He said that anyone who fought against the state must be held accountable and should be prepared to face any and all consequences.
He also went on to say that as a warning to students wishing to take part in similar activities, I should be made into an example.
He finished by saying there was nothing he or the President could do.
However, he did offer me an alternative. He asked whether I would be interested in studying abroad on a state scholarship or working at a state-owned company.
I told him no. In my mind, I couldn’t accept the carrot the government, which had been my enemy so recently, was holding out to me. I also considered it a disgrace. Before we parted, I told him, “If the state prevents one of its citizens from merely trying to make a living on his own, then I must say that the state owes the man a great deal. I hope you remember that.”
After that day, I forgot uttering those words. But years later, when I became president of Hyundai Construction, Mr. Lee was head of the National Tax Service, and we bumped into each other at a social function.
Mr. Lee reminded me then of what I had said years earlier. He went on to tell me that he had been absolutely shocked when he heard me say those words.
So when he got back to his office that day, he convened a meeting and agreed to allow Hyundai to hire me, on the condition that I would only work and not do anything else. I was grateful, and also pleased that he had taken my words so seriously.
In June 1965 I was granted an interview with Hyundai Construction. Several people from Hyundai were present. One of them was Chung Ju-yung himself, who was wearing a work jacket with the emblem of Hyundai stitched on the chest.
He seemed a cheery man, robust and full of energy. He reminded me of an army field general rather than the owner of a fledgling construction company.
With my fateful encounter with Chung Ju-yung, my life would enter a new beginning, but of course I wasn’t aware of this back then.
Chung looked at my resume and asked me, “Young man, what do you think construction is?” I replied without hesitation, “I think construction is creation.”
Chung said, “Why?”
I replied, “It’s because you’re creating something out of nothing.” Chung cracked a smile and said, “Well, you’re certainly a smooth talker.”
He then turned to his executives, who were sitting by his side, and said with a bemused look, “there are lots of these smooth-talking, good-for-nothing idiots these days.”
There were few questions about my background. I could sense that they were aware of my past as a student activist. But none of them mentioned anything about it or asked me questions.
After the interview was over, I went back and waited. Chung, the man who smiled when I said “construction is creation,” had a peculiar appeal. His relaxed manner and smile had a mysterious pull.
I kept getting the notion that I could achieve a lot if I worked for him. I became more excited the more I thought about it.
But my encounter with the senior secretary from the president’s office kept bothering me; I didn’t know whether that had helped my chances or scuttled them. I had no idea whether I would be freed from that “invisible hand” for good.
One week later, I was told to report to work on July 1.