By Juni Kim
The runaway success of Kakao’s mobile messaging app can be easily seen by its near universal use in South Korea. From high school students to working professionals, three-quarters of South Korea’s 50 million residents use Kakao’s free messaging service monthly with an additional 10 million monthly users outside of South Korea. Despite rapid growth over the past decade, Kakao faced a daunting hurdle when the South Korean Fair Trade Commission (FTC) labeled it and other similarly
The FTC designation illustrates the fear that smaller Korean companies hold of potentially being caught by tighter regulations after continued growth. Companies like Kakao are caught in the crossfire of the Korean government’s efforts to promote growth in smaller firms while simultaneously attempting to manage antitrust regulations.
Criticism and controversy surrounded the new designation, which also labeled companies Celltrion, Harim Group, Korea Investment Holdings, Kumho Petrochemical, and SH Corporation as big business groups. Industry analysts noted the unfair grouping of Kakao’s total assets with much larger companies. According to Kakao’s website, the company’s total assets are about 5.19 trillion won ($4.5 billion US), easily dwarfed by conglomerate companies such as Hyundai Motor’s reported total assets of 165 trillion won ($143 billion) and Samsung Electronic’s assets of 230 trillion won ($200 billion).
In the wake of the FTC designation, the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), a lobbying group for South Korean companies, released a report critical of the new designation. It stated that the designation excessively regulates companies like Kakao, citing the total of 60 newly assigned regulations authorized through 27 acts. Lee Chul-haeng, the FKI head of corporate policy, publicly stated, “We demand that the government either raise the asset floor for large corporation from 5 trillion won to 10 trillion won, or limit the list of large companies to the top 30 in terms of asset size.”
Concerns of excessive regulations on companies like Kakao have not gone unnoticed by South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Since March 2014, President Park’s administration has held five top-level meetings to discuss and encourage deregulation reform in an effort to encourage economic growth among burgeoning industries. The most recent meeting occurred at the Blue House only a few weeks after Kakao’s designation as a big business group. President Park specifically addressed Kakao’s growth challenges in that meeting by stating, “Companies like Kakao will be restricted if they are labeled as big business groups. In this situation, what company would want to continue to grow?” She further added, “Labeling big business groups as conglomerates is a system only found in Korea, and it needs to change according to the times.”
The FTC ultimately yielded and announced this month that the designation of big business groups will be changed from combined company assets of 5 trillion won to 10 trillion won, which effectively removes Kakao from the list. FTC Secretary General Shin Young-sun acknowledged industry criticisms of the previous designation by stating, “If the same level of regulation is applied to all these companies, it could affect the growth of the smaller members of the group, and we have decided to raise the standard.”
Kakao executives surely welcomed the news of the raised FTC designation. Kakao’s current plans for a web-based bank would have been subject to stiff restrictions if the FTC designation remained in place. However, challenges still remain for Kakao as it continues to expand. Despite its relative small size compared to larger chaebols, Kakao has been investigated before for possible abuses of its dominant market power in South Korea. Any further similar actions by Kakao may put it under the scrutiny of the FTC again and justify restrictive measures. Although it may be far from becoming its own chaebol, Kakao is not immune to future antitrust regulations.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Jiwon Nam, an Intern at KEI and graduate student at the University of Maine, also contributed to this blog. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Ben Hancock’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.