Praising Lee Kun-hee
By Oh Young-jin
Assistant managing editor
I wanted to title today’s column as “Lee Kun-hee’s tears” but decided not to at the last minute after finding at least five columns with similar titles on my website checkup.
It was a humbling experience because it showed there were other people who beat me even to what I (mis)judged to be my unique perspective. It was, however, an assuring confirmation because I am not far off from the league of conventional thought.
Another disclaimer is that this column was submitted to the Editorial Board with the title “Praising Lee Kun-hee , humanizing Samsung,” but chances are that only the first half will likely survive because of space constraints. I won’t shed tears about.
Let’s start with the photo in question, capturing Lee, the 69-year-old Samsung Electronics chairman and leader of Korea’s biggest business empire, tightening his lips to make the corners of his mouth rounder, while his eyes narrowed as if to fight back tears.
It was a typical facial reaction showing a person in a high emotional state either in joy or sorrow just before bursting into tears.
Obviously for Lee, it was not sadness but happiness that triggered the emotion. Thrown into it were feelings of self-vindication, patriotism, pride, part of Team Korea, etc.
Kim Yu-na, the Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater and Korea’s “national sister,” Cho Yang-ho, Korean Air chairman and chief bidding officer, Park Yong-sung, chairman of the Korea Olympic Committee, and President Lee Myung-bak, shared some of Lee’s feelings with people back home, when PyeongChang was pronounced to be the venue of the 2018 Winter Olympics last week at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Durban, South Africa. It was Korea’s third attempt at gaining the right to host the Games.
Lee’s every remark, often given in incomplete sentences, is often analyzed to the point of frivolity.
But his tears need no such vetting because they were plain enough to understand.
Effects can vary from one observer to another.
But I would say that one is to soften Samsung’s rough edges.
Truly, it employs the largest number of employees in the private sector, exports the largest volume of any single firm and generates a great deal of wealth for the nation: In short, providing a pivotal pillar for Korea Inc.
Samsung is so efficient that it conjures up the unfavorable public image of a ruthless money-making machine, stopping at nothing to achieve what it set out to do.
Ironically, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say that, if there is anything Samsung captures, it is the spirit of Korea galloping for a miracle run on a development path that has achieved what other nations would take forever in a short span of time. When we find Samsung’s shadows becoming bigger than us or simply out of schadenfreude: We are either scared or jealous.
One sign of ambivalence people feel about Lee and Samsung is that people, especially young people, perennially pick Lee as their role model in hopes of emulating his life. But this makes it harder on the conglomerate as well as Lee.
Seeing Lee cry for a national cause would make one feel that he is one of “us,” thereby paving the way for Samsung to come closer to the heart of the nation.
In this vein, the sense of elitism, often negatively associated with Samsung, can be moderated.
Samsung often sets the pace for other conglomerates in modus operandi from personnel affairs to management skills. It wouldn’t be unusual to see its employees becoming elitists, the pride of being the chosen few. Irrespective of his intentions, his Durban trip reinforced his effort to bring them down to the earth. Already, he vowed to clean up his business empire by firing top executives and strengthening internal audits, causing Samsung to recalibrate its focus and force its employees to toe the line.
Last but not least, the Durban victory gives Lee a strong sense of self-vindication.
President Lee risked a great deal of criticism by pardoning Lee. The Samsung chairman, who faced a special prosecutor’s investigation, was the only one to be put on a pardon list that went for endorsement at a Cabinet meeting, with the cited purpose of using him as a tool to steer the Games to Korea. Four years ago, the Samsung leader was in Guatemala City pitching for what proved to be Korea’s second unsuccessful bid. Thus, this time, Lee’s anxiety must have been of Olympic proportions.
The success in Durban would make him feel proud of his personal contributions but even prouder because it came in the context of attaining a national cause.
Interestingly, Lee discounted his contributions when he returned, saying that he didn’t remember much except for telling himself, “We have done it” and passing the laurels to President Lee for his handshake diplomacy with members of the IOC, who decide on the Olympic hosting city.
At this point, readers may feel weary about an 800-word psychobabble plus unsubstantiated interpretation of the achievements of the business tycoon that, even by my generous standards, smacks of an overkill.
I am not trying to encourage you to find a sudden outpouring of affection for Samsung or Lee but my point is that we need Samsung and Lee as much as they need us. For us, they are pivotal weapons that guarantee the survival of Korea in the age of global competition. We are Samsung’s home base and Lee’s motherland. I see Lee’s tears as a bridge that can narrow the gap between us and Samsung and as the beginning of a healing process that will eventually bring us together. After all, we have to love to hate, right? Right!