South Korea welcomed eight new members into its billionaire club in 2015, according to the Korea’s 50 Richest People list by Forbes. The fourth-largest economy in Asia claims at least 35 billionaires, but there are four members who stand above the rest due to their cultural importance.
The Korean economy is not especially diverse, despite its size and international importance. A handful of companies, led by the Samsung Group, dominates the business community and also holds significant sway over political matters. These four billionaires are not only the richest South Koreans, they are among the most important, regardless of fortune or position.
10. Lee Joong-Keun – Net worth $ 2.3 Billion
Self-made billionaire Lee Joong-Keun built his construction and property business, Booyoung Group, at a time when government policies favored rentals. After declaring bankruptcy in 1979, he put Booyoung shares in his relatives’ names so that he could do deals. Starting in 2004, he served a three-year jail term and paid $11.5 million in fines after being convicted for embezzling company funds. Since his release in 2007, he has been an exemplary success. In the private sector, Booyoung is Korea’s largest provider of rental housing. He’s also been buying up hotels, country clubs and resorts in South Korea. In early 2016, Booyoung agreed to buy the 25-story Samsung Life Insurance building in central Seoul for around $460 million. Lee places considerable emphasis on corporate responsibility, and is known to be a generous benefactor — donating to families of disaster victims and granting scholarships and school supplies to support education in developing Southeast Asian countries. A keen student of modern Korean history, he has authored and published two books. “Liberation 1,775 Days” chronicles what happened during the five-year period after liberation from Japanese colonial rule up until the outbreak of the Korean War. His previous book is titled “The Korea War 1,129 Days.”
9. Chung Eui-Sun – $ 2.5 Net worth
He is the only son of Hyundai Motor Co. Chairman Chung Mong-Koo and his heir apparent. After receiving an M.B.A. from University of San Francisco, Chung worked at the New York office of Japanese trading house Itochu Corp. before joining Hyundai’s auto parts affiliate, Hyundai Mobis, in 1994. As president of Kia from 2005 to 2009, he made over the company’s brand image, hiring renowned automotive designer Peter Schreyer to phase out the bland, boxy styling that had made Kia models such as the Soul objects of derision among auto buffs. During his tenure at the helm, Kia grew faster than its Hyundai Motor affiliate–allowing Chung to begin to step outside the shadow cast by his formidable father, who is known for his obsession with quality and hard-charging management style. In 2009 Chung became vice chairman of Hyundai Motor. He was appointed to the company’s board in 2010, bringing him a step closer to becoming the third generation of his family to lead Hyundai. Hyundai Glovis Co. — which functions as a holding company for stakes in Hyundai affiliates and also provides logistics services to those affiliates and other customers — accounts for most of Eui-Sun’s fortune. Outside of the business world, he is president of the Asian Archery Association, as his father once was.
8. Park Hyeon-Joo – $ 2.9 Billion Net worth
Park Hyeon-Joo, the father of Korea’s mutual fund industry, realised that small investors hungered for easier access to the market. So he quit his job as a branch manager at a brokerage firm and, amidst the rubble of the Asian financial crisis, founded Mirae Asset Investment Advisory and a venture capital affiliate in 1997. He launched Korea’s first closed-end mutual fund the following year, along with an asset management company. Now operating in 12 countries, the firm has approximately $90 billion in assets under management. Specialising in Asian and emerging markets, Mirae has found a sweet spot with low-cost exchange-traded funds. In 2010, the Harvard Business School — intrigued at how Mirae was able to outmanoeuvre conglomerates that had long dominated the investment business in Korea — selected Mirae for a case study for its M.B.A. program. Park, meanwhile, has been promoting and funding a variety of charitable endeavours. The Mirae Asset Park Hyeon Joo Foundation provides scholarships to academically promising students from disadvantaged families.
7. Chey Tae-Won – $ 4.6 Billion Net worth
Chey Tae-Won returned as SK Group chairman in February 2016, 3 years after he was sentenced to prison for embezzlement and stepped down from the boards of all SK companies. Key segments for SK Group, South Korea’s third largest conglomerate, include telecommunications, IT services and semiconductors and digital storage solutions; chemicals, energy and bio-pharmaceuticals; as well as the development and construction of plants and major infrastructure products. The company has been moving into higher-growth industries, such as biotechnology, liquid natural gas and IT services. In 2017, SK Group’s subsidiary SK Hynix joined the race to acquire 20% of Toshiba’s memory chip business; Taiwan’s Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision, offered as much as $27 billion in the bidding war which also involves U.S. companies, Broadcom and Western Digital.
6. Chung Mong-Koo – $4.7 Billion Net Worth
Hyundai Motor Company does not quite have the cultural profile or political influence of the Samsung Group, but it is still one of South Korea’s most important companies. Chung Mong-Koo is one of six children who runs part of Chung Ju-Yung’s original Hyundai empire and acts as chairman of Hyundai Motor Company. Chung has a reputation for headstrong, aggressive management and a constant drive to improve product quality.
Chung has agreed to donate over $1 billion to benefit South Korea, albeit after serving a few months in prison on embezzlement charges. His personal foibles notwithstanding, Chung is the driving influence behind Hyundai’s revamped reputation as a quality auto manufacturer. His son, Chung Eui-Sun, is estimated to be worth an additional $3.8 billion.
5. Kim Jung-Ju – $5 Billion Net Worth
He is founder of South Korean online-gaming company Nexon; he is chairman of its holding company NXC. In 2016 Kim was found not guilty of bribery charges after being indicted for giving money to a prosecutor, who was his good friend, at Seoul National. Prosecutors plan to appeal. Kim published an apology following the indictment; he resigned as a director of Nexon after the allegation.
4. Kwon Hyuk-Bin – Net Worth 6.3 Billion
Kwon Hyuk-Bin founded Smilegate in 2002 and has built it into one of the most successful gaming companies in South Korea. Following a 2008 partnership with Chinese Internet giant Tencent, it released its most popular title, CrossFire. Kwon’s Smilegate Holdings, of which he owns 100%, is the largest shareholder of Korean mobile game developer SundayToz. Through his Smilegate Foundation, Kwon has established schools in China and Vietnam, providing education in IT, among other subjects.
3. Jay Y. Lee – $7 Billion Net Worth
Jay Y. Lee is the only son of Lee Kun-hee, and that distinction has earned him access to part of Samsung’s vast fortune. The 47-year-old legacy has been groomed for years to be the successor to the Samsung Group empire, and he has been president of Samsung Electronics since 2009.
The name Jay Y. Lee is actually a business pseudonym; his given name is Lee Jae-yong, though many in South Korea call him “Crown Prince of Samsung.” Compared to his father, Jay Y. Lee is considered cold, uncharismatic, quiet and subtly playful, a leadership style criticized by some in the Korean media.
In August 2017 Jay Y. Lee was sentenced to five years in prison on bribery and embezzlement charges; he denies the charges and is appealing. The heir of the Samsung empire is accused of paying around $38 million to a confidante of former President Park Geun-hye to help secure a merger
2. Suh Kyung-Bae – $7.2 Billion Net Worth
Continuing to ride global interest in all things Korean, Suh Kyung-Bae, the chairman of cosmetics giant AmorePacific, promises to nearly triple sales to $10.7 billion by 2020 and is expanding to the Middle East with its first shop in Dubai slated to open in mid 2017. The empire has been riding several powerful waves: public interest in environmentally friendly products formulated from natural ingredients; the rising purchasing power and mobility of Chinese consumers; and the “K-beauty” phenomenon — the global interest in Korean beauty products and techniques fueled by the surging popularity of Korean pop (“K-pop”) media content. Suh is an avid art collector — AmorePacific headquarters in Seoul is filled with pop art pieces.
1. Lee Kun-hee – $ 20.7 Billion Net Worth
Lee Kun-hee is the most well-known and influential person in South Korea. He is the third-generation chairman of the Samsung Group, the massive company that represents more than 20% of the entire Korean economy. Samsung Electronics, a subsidiary of the larger Samsung Group, is Kun-hee’s most noteworthy legacy and the largest information technology company in the world. Other subsidiary companies include Samsung Heavy Industries, Samsung Engineering, Samsung C&T, Samsung Techwin, Samsung Life Insurance and Cheil Worldwide.
Samsung grew by a factor of nearly 40 between 1987, when Lee assumed control of the country, and 2015. His legacy has been somewhat tarnished by a slush fund scandal that saw him relinquish control of the Samsung Group between 2008 and 2010, but there is no question he has left an indelible mark on South Korea.