By Nathaniel Curran
The future of Korea’s economy may depend on SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises) just as much as it does on the large traditional companies, the chaebol.
The Moon administration has already announced plans to boost support for SMEs, and while the success of the initiative remains to be seen, it raises important questions about the future of Korea’s economy.
Korea’s economy today is almost synonymous with the chaebol, the enormous, family owned and vertically integrated conglomerates that possess large market share in major global industries like shipping, electronics, and automobiles. In 2015, sales revenue from the five largest chaebol accounted for almost 60% of Korea’s GDP. Samsung and its subsidiaries alone account for roughly 20% of Korea’s economy.
It’s easy to understand the public and media fascination with the chaebol; they have been hailed as an important driver in South Korea’s rapid economic development, known as the “Miracle on the Han.” The seemingly symbiotic relationship between the chaebol and the government has been hailed as both dirigisme par excellence, and as crony capitalism. But regardless of one’s opinion of the chaebol, it’s undeniable that from their humble beginnings under Japanese colonial rule, the chaebol have shown remarkable resilience as the world has changed around them.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the chaebol’s survival came in 1997 during the Asian Financial crisis, during which 97% of chaebol went into bankruptcy. Despite the blame they attracted for causing the crisis, the chaebol emerged from the 1997 crisis largely unscathed. Although the subsequent IMF bailout led to significant restructuring, the chaebols’ modus operandi of family control, high debt ratio, and opaque operating structure remained largely intact. In fact, the chaebol were able to take advantage of IMF mandated restructuring to fire approximately 40% of their employees, who could then be rehired as part-time employees.
In the shadow of the Chaebol
However, the Western media’s focus on the power of the chaebol has served to obfuscate another important facet of Korea’s economy/economic development: SME’s (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises). While the chaebol have captured the lion’s share of attention -and treasure- in Korea, SMEs played, and continue to play, a vital role in Korea’s economic narrative.
Korea today boasts 3 million micro-enterprises (businesses that have fewer than 10 employees). Furthermore, SMEs account for roughly 37% of exports, which is especially impressive when one considers that fact that Samsung alone accounts for a whopping 30% of exports. Furthermore, employment continues to rise at SMEs, all the while accompanied by a growing popular sentiment that the interests of the Korean people are not being well served by the chaebol’s business activities.
The future of SMEs
SMEs may have found a champion in President Moon, who has repeatedly pledged to help spur entrepreneurship. In this vein, the administration has already created a ministry for SMEs and startups. This is a promising sign, as the best way to deal with the chaebols’ stranglehold on the Korean economy might be less to attempt to reign them in than to directly support SMEs. After all, attempts to impose restraints on the chaebol have repeatedly failed, and despite Korea’s overreliance on exports, the chaebol likely will remain vital to a healthy Korean economy well into the future.
It in the present, it seems unlikely that Korea will be able to completely emulate Germany’s mittelstand (Germany’s innovative, tight-knit, and highly focused SMEs that play a leading role in the economy). That being said, diversification away from the chaebol would still be useful. For decades the chaebol enjoyed privileges and government support that make it difficult for SMEs to compete in today’s neoliberal environment of unregulated markets. Putting investment into SMEs would help spur innovation and much needed domestic competition. There is certainly widespread support for such measures, as the chaebols’ interests seem decreasingly to parallel state economic and social objectives.
It won’t be easy to steer Korea away from over-dependence on the chaebol, especially when the idea of working at a chaebol has become such a deeply ingrained dream for most young Koreans. Wages at the chaebol continue to outpace their SME counterparts. There are promising signs, however: not just the Moon administration’s investment plans, but also a burgeoning startup scene that may succeed in attracting more young talent away from traditional salary-man jobs at chaebol firms.
An SME revolution could be just what Korea needs to maintain its competitive edge in the global marketplace in the coming decades.
Nathaniel Curran is a PhD student at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and a 2017 COMPASS Summer Fellow. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Yeseul Ko’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.