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Hangul 재벌
Hanja 財閥
Revised Romanization Jaebeol
McCune–Reischauer Chaebŏl
IPA [tɕɛːbʌl]

A chaebol (Korean: 재벌, About this sound listen ; from chae "wealth or property" + bol "faction or clan" – also written with the same Chinese characters 財閥 as Zaibatsu)[1] is a South Korean form of business conglomerate. They are typically global multinationals and own numerous international enterprises,[1] controlled by a chairman with power over all the operations.[1][2] The term is often used in a context similar to that of the English word "conglomerate". The term was first used in 1984.[1] There are several dozen large Korean family-controlled corporate groups which fall under this definition.

The chaebol have also played a significant role in South Korean politics. In 1988, a member of a chaebol family, Chung Mong-joon, president of Hyundai Heavy Industries, successfully ran for the National Assembly of South Korea. Other business leaders also were chosen to be members of the National Assembly through proportional representation. Since 2000, Hyundai has played a role in the thawing of North Korean and South Korean relations.[3][clarification needed]


The former headquarters of Hyundai in Seoul.

South Korea's economy was small and predominantly agricultural well into the mid-20th century. However, the policies of President Park Chung Hee spurred rapid industrialization by promoting large businesses, following his seizure of power in 1961. The First Five Year Economic Plan[2] by the government set industrial policy toward new investment, and the chaebol were to be guaranteed loans from the banking sector. The chaebol played a key role in developing new industries, markets, and export production, helping place South Korea as one of the Four Asian Tigers.

Although South Korea's major industrial programs did not begin until the early 1960s, the origins of the country's entrepreneurial elite were found in the political economy of the 1950s. Very few Koreans had owned or managed larger corporations during the Japanese colonial period. After the departure of the Japanese in 1945, some Korean businessmen obtained the assets of some of the Japanese firms, a number of which grew into the chaebol of the 1990s.

The companies, as well as certain other firms that were formed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, had close links with Syngman Rhee's First Republic, which lasted from 1948 to 1960. It was alleged that many of these companies received special favors from the government in return for kickbacks and other payments.

When the military took over the government in 1961, its leaders announced that they would eradicate the corruption that had plagued the Rhee administration and eliminate injustice from society. Some leading industrialists were arrested and charged with corruption, but the new government realized that it would need the help of entrepreneurs if the government's ambitious plans to modernize the economy were to be fulfilled. A compromise was reached, under which many of the accused corporate leaders paid fines to the government. Subsequently, there was increased cooperation between corporate and government leaders in modernizing the economy.[4]

Government-chaebol cooperation was essential to the subsequent economic growth and astounding successes that began in the early 1960s. Driven by the urgent need to turn the economy away from consumer goods and light industries toward heavy, chemical, and import-substitution industries, political leaders and government planners relied on the ideas and cooperation of the chaebol leaders. The government provided the blueprints for industrial expansion; the chaebol realized the plans. However, the chaebol-led industrialization accelerated the monopolistic and oligopolistic concentration of capital and economically profitable activities in the hands of a limited number of conglomerates.

Park used the chaebol as a means towards economic growth. Exports were encouraged, reversing Rhee's policy of reliance on imports. Performance quotas were established.

The chaebol were able to grow because of two factors: foreign loans and special favors. Access to foreign technology also was critical to the growth of the chaebol through the 1980s. Under the guise of "guided capitalism," the government selected companies to undertake projects and channeled funds from foreign loans. The government guaranteed repayment should a company be unable to repay its foreign creditors. Additional loans were made available from domestic banks. In the late 1980s, the chaebol dominated the industrial sector and were especially prevalent in manufacturing, trading, and heavy industries.

The tremendous growth that the chaebol experienced, beginning in the early 1960s, was closely tied to the expansion of South Korean exports. Growth resulted from the production of a diversity of goods rather than just one or two products. Innovation and the willingness to develop new product lines were critical. In the 1950s and early 1960s, chaebol concentrated on wigs and textiles; by the mid-1970s and 1980s, heavy, defense, and chemical industries had become predominant. While these activities were important in the early 1990s, real growth was occurring in the electronics and high-technology industries. The chaebol also were responsible for turning the trade deficit in 1985 to a trade surplus in 1986. The current account balance, however, fell from more than US$14 billion in 1988 to US$5 billion in 1989.

The chaebol continued their explosive growth in export markets in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the chaebol had become financially independent and secure, thereby eliminating the need for further government-sponsored credit and assistance.

By the 1990s, South Korea was one of the largest newly industrialized countries and boasted a standard of living comparable to industrialized countries.

Former headquarters of the defunct Daewoo Group, once the second-largest conglomerate in South Korea.

President Kim Young-sam began to challenge the chaebol, but it was not until the 1997 Asian financial crisis that the weaknesses of the system were widely understood. Of the 30 largest chaebol, 11 collapsed between July 1997 and June 1999. Initially, the crisis was caused by sharp drop in the value of the currency and aside from immediate cash flow concerns for paying foreign debts, the lower cost ultimately helped the stronger chaebol expand their brands to Western markets, but the simultaneous decline of nearby export markets in Southeast Asia, which had been fueling growth made the large debts incurred, for what was now overcapacity, be fatal to many of the chaebol. The remaining chaebol also became far more specialized in their focus. For example, with a population ranked at the 26th in the world, before the crisis, the country had seven major automobile manufacturers. Afterward, only two major manufacturers remained intact though two additional continued, in a smaller capacity, under General Motors and Renault. The chaebol debts were not only to state industrial banks but also to independent banks and their own financial services subsidiaries. The scale of the loan defaults meant that banks could neither foreclose nor write off bad loans without themselves collapsing, so the failure to service these debts quickly caused a systemic banking crises, and South Korea turned to the IMF for assistance. The most spectacular example came in mid-1999, with the collapse of the Daewoo Group, which had some US$80 billion in unpaid debt. At the time, it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in history.

Investigations also exposed widespread corruption in the chaebol, particularly fraudulent accounting and bribery.

Still, South Korea recovered quickly from the crisis, and most of blame for the economic problems was shifted to the IMF. The remaining chaebol have grown substantially since the crisis, but they have maintained far lower debt levels.

In 2014, the largest chaebol, Samsung, comprised about 17% of the South Korean economy and held roughly US$17 billion in cash. However recent financial statements of these chaebols actually show that chaebols are slowly losing power over either international competition or internal disruptions from newly emerging startups. Net profit/income of South Korea’s top conglomerates has decreased from 2012 to 2015.[5] Not only did their profits stop increasing, but certain chaebols such as LG, have been making losses and losing talents.


Even though the chaebol system helped bring about rapid growth and helped Korea launch itself on the international stage, it caused negative impacts on the Korean economy:

Emergence and inflation[edit]

The origins of the chaebol system in South Korea come as consequence of the Korean War. The war resulted in much destruction and halted industrial production, which led the government to print money to pay for the war and meet requirements of the United Nations forces for the Korean currency, all of which caused mass inflation. This inflation caused many commodity prices to double every six months.

The government had to react and so devised a plan in providing strong financial incentives to private companies between the 1960s and 1970s. It consisted on the government choosing select family businesses to distribute the incentives (imported raw materials, commodities, bank loans). The impact was immediate, and most of the businesses flourished rapidly. The protection of infant companies allowed them to develop because of the highly regulated market, which prevented foreign companies from entering.[6] Many companies that were not in the circle of businesses saw the system as flawed and corrupted.[2] While these problems have never erupted into the sort of "crony capitalism" problems common in Southeast Asia, corruption scandals have periodically visited all of the chaebol.


The chairmen in charge of the chaebol possess a small portion of equity in the companies under the large umbrella of the chaebol but are very powerful in making decisions and have the ability to control all management. For example, Samsung owns 0.5% in the group's’s listed firms. That demonstrates a lack in the rule of law.[2] The method that allows this type of possession is called cross-holding, which is a horizontal and vertical structure that enhances the control of the chairman.[7]

Internal market transactions accountability[edit]

Because the government gave out incentives to help businesses, it had a lot of control over them. However, there was no way to ensure the businesses would use the incentives in an effective and efficient manner.[2] In other words, there was no external monitoring system to monitor the chaebol and ensure that they were efficient in the allocation of resources.[8] All businesses undertake internal market transactions, which constitute "purchase and sale of intermediate inputs, the provision and receipt of loan collaterals, and the provision and receipt of payment guarantees among member firms in a business group".[9] There is the question of efficiency, especially in production and management. Therefore, the system of chaebol was not very transparent. Behind the scenes, businesses were provided with subsidiary financing and intragroup transactions. This allowed them easy loans to cover for their deficits, and prior to the 1997 crisis, huge debts had accumlated, many of which were hidden. That gave the illusion to the world that the system was flourishing into the 1990s.[2]

"Too big to fail"[edit]

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, bankers feared that the chaebol would go bankrupt so they allowed these businesses to roll over their loans each time they were unable to repay their debts. They allowed that because there was a common misconception that these businesses were "too big to fail". Many did not believe that the chaebol were capable of collapsing and that the more they borrowed, the safer they were.

However, the theory was proven wrong when many businesses collapsed during the crisis. Since they were linked through debt guarantees, many of the companies fell in a chain reaction.[2] The focus on capacity expansion created debt that was manageable when the economy was growing. However, when the economy stalled, debt-to-equity ratios became a huge problem.[10]

Since the crisis, the chaebol now have less debt so they are less vulnerable to similar crises, as was demonstrated in the 2008 crisis, but the growth of the fewer remaining chaebol has meant they each occupy a larger portion of the economy.

Management structure[edit]

Some chaebol are one large corporation while others have broken up into loosely connected groups of separate companies sharing a common name. Even in the latter case, each is almost always owned, controlled, or managed by the same family group.

South Korea's chaebol are often compared with Japan's keiretsu business groupings, the successors to the pre-war zaibatsu. While the "chaebol" are similar to the "zaibatsu" (the words are cognates, from the same hanja or kanji), some major differences have evolved between chaebol and keiretsu:

  • Chaebol are still largely controlled by their founding families while keiretsu are controlled by groups of professional managers. Chaebol, furthermore, are more family based and family oriented than their Japanese counterparts.
  • Chaebol are centralized in ownership while keiretsu are more decentralized.
  • Chaebol have more often formed subsidiaries to produce components for exports while large Japanese corporations have mostly switched to employing outside contractors.
  • The major structural difference between Korean chaebol and the Japanese keiretsu is that chaebol do not all have their own financial institutions. Most were heavily dependent on government loans and loan guarantees in their early years, and they still have a closer relationship with government than their Japanese counterparts. Chaebol are largely prohibited from owning private banks, partly to spread risk and partly to increase the government's leverage over the banks in areas such as credit allocation. In 1990, government regulations made it difficult for a chaebol to develop an exclusive banking relationship, but following the cascading collapses of the late 1990s, it was somewhat relaxed. Keiretsu have historically worked with an affiliated bank, giving the affiliated companies almost unlimited access to credit, so the economic problems for which the Japanese have been known is zombie banks rather than a systemic banking crises. However, many of the largest keiretsu have diversified their debt practices, and public bond sales have become somewhat common.

The chaebol model is heavily reliant on a complex system of interlocking ownership. The owner of the chaebol, with the help of family members, family-owned charity and senior managers from subsidiaries, has to control only three of four public companies, who themselves control other companies that control subsidiaries. A good example of this practice would be the owner of Doosan, who controlled more than 20 subsidiaries with only a minor participation in about 5 companies.[11]


Under President Kim Dae-jung, elected in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the government made several efforts to reform the economy:

  • Instead of competing in every industry, the chaebol were pressured to focus on core businesses and spin off unrelated enterprises.
  • The chaebol were to decentralize their management and encourage the hiring of professional managers.
  • Accounting regulations were strengthened to limit the ability of chaebol to hide losses and debt at underperforming subsidiaries.
  • A crackdown on antitrust laws and inheritance taxes would impede the ability of families to retain control over their chaebol.

Both Kim and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, had mixed success. The chaebol continue to dominate South Korea's economy. Hyundai and SK Group have been implicated in separate scandals involving both presidents.[12] Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee resigned amid charges of tax evasion and breach of trust in April 2008.

The Federation of Korean Industries, a consortium of chaebol, has taken a leading role in resisting changes.[citation needed].


Laws were passed to limit the expansion of chaebol:

  • Law for separate finance from industry (ko:금산분리법;金産分離法 : Chaebol may no longer have banks since 1982
  • Law for limit of investment (출자총액제한;出資總額制限 : A chaebol's growth by M&A) was limited until 2009
  • Law for limit of assurance (상호출자채무보증제한;相互出資債務保證制限 : A law defends the insolvency of a chaebol's affiliates

Formally, the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC; 공정거래위원회;公正去來委員會) announces a limited chaebol list every year as size of industrial assets (not including financial companies).

  • Appointment: Korea Fair Trade Commission
  • Inclusion: industrial groups (assets: 5 trillion won, more)
  • Exclusion: bank and financial groups

Chaebol with limited assurance (상호출자제한기업집단;相互出資制限企業集團)

  • Year Chaebol Affiliates: Assets
  • 2007 : 62  : 1,196 Ent : 979.7 trillion won (Not include bank and financial group by South Korean law)
  • 2008 : 79  : 1,680 Ent : 1,161.5 trillion won (more than 2 trillion won)
  • 2009 : 48  : 1,137 Ent : 1,310.6 trillion won (more than 5 trillion won)
  • Samsung Group's total assets are 317 trillion won, but the FTC recognizes only 174 trillion won that excludes the financial subsidiary.
  • Nonghyup's total assets are 400 trillion won, but the FTC recognizes only 2 trillion won, which excludes financial assets because Nonghyup is a financial group by South Korean law.

Chaebol by revenue[edit]

The following charts list chaebol in order by different categories.

  • Management : chaebol controlled by the owner's family or the largest shareholders
Chaebol by family groups Won Total Assets Family Groups
Samsung family group 252 Trillion 348.7 Shinsegae + CJ + Hansol Groups
Hyundai family group 203 Trillion 204.4 Motors + Heavy + Steel + insurance + trade + construction
LG family group 191 Trillion 148.4 LG 115 + GS 49.8 + LS 20.5 + LIG 6.5 Groups (Revenue)
  • Business Area: a chaebol that has several monopolies.
Chaebol by each Groups Won Total Assets Industries
Samsung Group 221 trillion 317.5 Electronics, insurance, card, construction & shipbuilding
LG Group 115 trillion 69.5 Electronics, insurance, chemicals, telecom & trade
Hyundai Kia Automotive Group 107 trillion 128.7 Motors, steel & stock
SK Group 105 trillion 85.9 Energy, telecom, trade, construction & semiconductors
GS Group 49.8 trillion 39.0 Energy, shopping & construction
Lotte 41.4 trillion 54.9 Construction, food, energy, Hospitality & Shopping
Hyundai Heavy Industries Gp 31.3 trillion 42.8 Heavy industry (including Hyundai Mipo Dockyard)
Hanwha 27.24 trillion 75.7 Explosives, chem, insurance
Hanjin 26.1 trillion 29.1 Korean Air, Jin Air, shipping, heavy industry
Kumho Asiana Group 23.4 trillion 43.9 Asiana Air, Air Busan, construction, petrochemical, tire
Doosan 21.4 trillion 32.7 Heavy industry, atomic energy[13]
  • Organization : a chaebol that has other chaebol as affiliates
Chaebol by each unit Won Total Assets Industries
Samsung Electronics 121.2943 105.3 Electronics, LCD, TV, mobile phone, semiconductor[14]
LG Holdings 90.2224 64.7 Holding (consolidated result by share rate)[15]
SK Holdings 88.8249 68.9 Holding (consolidated result by share rate)[16]
Hyundai Motors 79.7363 103.2 Motors[17]
LG Electronics 63.2803 42.3 Electronics, LCD, TV, mobile phone, air conditioner[18]
SK Energy 52.6063 24.9 Energy[19]
GS Caltex 34.4242 18.0 Energy[20]
Hyundai Heavy Industries 27.4835 38.3 Heavy industry (excluding Hyundai Mipo Dockyard)[21]
Samsung Life 25.2948 121.6 insurance[22]
SK Networks 22.6516 9.0 Trade[23]
Kia Motors 22.2176 25.5 Motors[24]
LS Group 20.5330 14.5 Steel, cable & energy[25]
Samsung C&T Corporation 20.4834 15.4 Trade & construction[26]
Doosan Heavy Industries 19.2317 30.1 Heavy industry (including Doosan Infracore)[27]
LG Display 16.2636 17.3 LCD[28]
Hyundai Oil Bank 14.8347 4.8 Energy[29]
GM Daewoo Motors 14.7623 9.5 Motors[30]
LG Chem 14.5548 9.3 Chemistry[31]
Daelim Group 14.5000 11.0 MotorCycle, Construction & Petrochemical
Dongbu Group 15.4950 24.7 Semiconductor, Steel & insurance
SK Telecom 14.0209 22.4 Telecom[32]
Hyundai Mobis 13.8472 10.4 Motor parts[33]
Kyobo Life 13.5155 47.8 insurance (07)[34]
Daehan Life 12.7776 50.9 insurance (08) Hanwha Group's company[35]
Lotte Shopping 12.8393 16.9 Shopping[36]
CJ Group 12.4100 12.3 Food & shopping
Daewoo Shipbuilding 12.2207 17.4 Shipbuilding[37]
Samsung Fire 11.8633 23.0 insurance[38]
Daewoo international 11.4263 3.4 Trade[39]
LG International 11.2626 3.7 Trade[40]
Hyundai Steel 11.2519 12.2 Steel[41]
Shinsegae 11.0520 10.7 Shopping[42]
Samsung Heavy Industries 10.6895 26.5 Shipbuilding[43]
Korean Air 10.4844 17.7 Hanjin Group's company[44]
LS Cable 10.4560 7.6 Cable[45]
NH Nonghyup insurance 10.1827 27.8 Insurance[46]
Kumho E&C 10.1335 18.6 Construction[47]
  • Consolidated IR Reports : DART (Data Analysis, Retrieval and Transfer System : 전자공시시스템) of Financial Supervisory Service (금융감독원)
  • Korea has about 100 chaebol (more than 5 trillion won) by revenue.
  • Korea's total financial assets is 8.665 quadrillion won(8 trillion USD) by The Bank of Korea's report[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "chaebol". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2011-08-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Jung, Dong-Hyeon (1 August 2004). "Korean Chaebol in Transition". Sage. 40 (3): 299–303. doi:10.1177/000944550404000306. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  3. ^ "Hyundai's $500 Million Payments to North Korea: A Bribe or Business Deal?" (PDF). Korea WebWeekly. 9 February 2003. 
  4. ^ Savada, Andrea Matles. South Korea: A Country Study. p. 152. [full citation needed]
  5. ^ Tesla, Agence (2016-06-22). "Can South Korean Startups (and the government) Save its Flailing Giant Tech Conglomerates? - Innovation is Everywhere". Retrieved 2016-07-12. 
  6. ^ Beck, Peter M. (November 1998). "Revitalizing Korea's Chaebol". Asian Survey. 38 (11): 1018–1035. doi:10.1525/as.1998.38.11.01p0405n. 
  7. ^ Moskalev, Sviatoslav,; Park, Seung Chan (2010). "South Korean Chaebols and Value-Based Management". Journal of Business Ethics. 92: 49–62. doi:10.1007/s10551-009-0138-5. 
  8. ^ Park, Seung-Rok; Yuhn, Ky-hyang (2012). "Has the Korean Model of Chaebol Succeeded?". Journal of Economic Studies. 39 (2): 260–274. doi:10.1108/01443581211222680. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  9. ^ Park, Seung-Rok; Yuhn, Ky-hyang (April 2011). "Has the Korean chaebol model succeeded?". Journal of Economic Studies. 39 (2): 260–274. doi:10.1108/01443581211222680. 
  10. ^ Akaba, Yuji; Budde, Florian; Jungkiu Choi (1 December 1998). "Restructuring South Korea's Chaebol". McKinsey Quarterly (4): 68–79. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  11. ^ Kim, Dong-Woon (April 2003). "Interlocking Ownership in the Korean Chaebol". Corporate governance: an International Review. 
  12. ^ Donald Macintyre (Dec 1, 2003). "Losing Face". Time. 
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 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.