On Monday, who's who of South Korea's business elite gathered at a church in central Seoul for a wedding. The bride was the eldest daughter of the Hyundai Motors Group chairman Chung Eui-sun. In attendance were leading members of the Chung family, the LG Group chairman Koo Kwang-mo, and the SK Group chairman Chey Tae-won among others.
But the undisputed scene-stealer was the Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong's 18-year-old daughter, Won-ju.
Easily hundreds of news articles about her flooded the Korean-language internet in the aftermath. Some were keen to point out how "loving" the father and daughter looked together as they walked into the church. Most didn't disguise their interest in her clothes for the occasion: a black "Barocco Goddess" silk-paneled mini dress sold by the Italian fashion brand Versace for 2,195 dollars. It's reportedly no more available within South Korea.
A celebrity wears a fashion item and it sells out—that's nothing unusual these days. Think of Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge), Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Alexa Chung and countless other social media 'influencers' around the world.
In South Korea, members of the chaebol—the families that control the country's biggest firms—count themselves among such celebrities. You might not care, but the Chungs at Hyundai, the Koos at LG, the Cheys at SK, the Chos at Korean Air, the Shins at Lotte, and myriad other clans are as familiar to the South Korean public as top actors and actresses are.
Their undisputed king, though, is Lee Jae-yong, who rules the Samsung empire after his father's death in 2020 (and actually even before that while the elder Lee was nursing his health in a hospital) and regularly tops the list of South Korean billionaires. No wonder what his daughter wears makes the news.
Some South Koreans rage against the hold such families have on these big, publicly traded firms and by extension the national economy. They pass down control of the company from one generation to another without being majority shareholders through a complex "cross-holding" ownership structure. These so-called "owner families" have not infrequently been accused of treating the firms like personal property, embezzling funds, funneling profits to family members and bribing politicians for extra advantages.
A key campaign pledge of the previous president, Moon Jae-in, was tackling this chaebol oligarchy. In his inauguration speech on May 10, 2017, he asserted, "I will be at the forefront of reforming the chaebol. The phrase 'collusion between politics and business' will disappear entirely."
But after his five-year term, the reality of chaebol continues as usual, and the cult surrounding the big business dynasties shows no sign of abating.
A favorite of the press is Lim Se-ryung, the eldest daughter of the family behind Daesang Corporation, which owns multiple well-known food brands including Chungjungone 청정원 and Jonggajip 종가집. (She's also Lee Jae-yong's ex-wife and Won-ju's mother.)
On the very first day of 2015 an entertainment gossip site Dispatch revealed that Lim was dating the actor Lee Jung-jae (of the Netflix drama Squid Game fame), but no less scrutinized than the pairing itself was her fashion. (A Burberry coat! An Hermes bag!) When they left the country together in 2019 on an overseas trip, the main topic of interest was her Bottega Veneta handbag, estimated to be "worth 2.3 million won and made by crisscrossing wide strips of napa leather".
Despite not being especially fashionable, Lee Jae-yong gets his own share of fawning coverage for what he wears. In 2014 it was for a polo shirt from the US brand Under Armour. In 2019 he made headlines for a "Firebee AR Parka" (in red) from the Canadian company Arc'teryx. His red parka, sold for 1.37 million won at the time (a little more than 1,000 dollars at the current exchange rate), prompted some journalists to even call him "frugal" (since that price tag is only pocket change for a billionaire).
This kid-glove treatment stands in contrast to how actors and singers get brutally judged and destroyed by the media over the smallest hint of scandal. In January last year, Lee was convicted of bribery in connection to the political crisis in 2016 and 17 that brought down the then-president Park Geun-hye and served 207 days behind bars before being paroled.
And just two months after his parole, in October, he was again found guilty in a criminal court, this time for receiving illegal injections of a psychotropic drug called Propofol over a course of several years.
But Lee remains in charge of the country's biggest company, and the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo even suggested three months ago that Lee should formally be promoted to the chairman position because "Samsung's growing role has been felt during the global competition for semiconductors, the restructuring of the supply chain, and the mask and vaccine shortage during the Covid-19 pandemic." (Don't ask me why this means Lee should be the one to run the company, though, because I don't understand the logic myself, either.)
The K-drama Anna, currently streaming on Coupang Play, mocks this double moral standard in South Korea. Starring actress Bae Suzy, formerly of the K-pop girl group Miss A, it tells the story of a woman from a humble background who adopts the name Anna and reinvents herself as a socialite through a series of lies.
Anna's husband, a successful startup entrepreneur with political ambitions, tells her when she is reluctant to assume more public visibility, "This country is heartless toward the weak and full of compassion for those in power."
The truth of that sentiment is laid bare by the enduring chaebol fixation. On Tuesday Cho Hyun-min a.k.a. Emily Cho, a younger sister of the Hanjin Group's current chairman, made her first public appearance as the company president. Soon after, the shoes she wore, sold by the French luxury brand Lanvin, became all the rage.
Only four years ago, Cho, then a Korean Air senior vice-president (the Hanjin Group owns Korean Air) was accused of throwing a cup of water at a representative of an advertising company. She was suspended from her role at the company and disappeared from view in the ensuing public outrage.
In a country where money rules supreme, moral flaws of the rich are easily forgotten, and few talk about that episode involving Cho any more. Far more important are a fancy dress and shiny new shoes.
Cover: the now-famous Versace "Barocco Goddess" silk-paneled mini dress (source: versace.com)