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The end of the myth

Dec 13,2019
JEON YOUNG-SEON
The author is a reporter of the industry team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

It would have been far better if it weren’t a myth, I thought as I reviewed the life of Daewoo Group founder and former chairman Kim Woo-choong. The “salaried man myth” is cherished by many people. In the past few days, various memories of him have been shared on social media.

But there is one thing I want to point out in the significance of his myth. A myth is a kind of religious system passed on from the past. It helps a society to efficiently remember the past, and culture is grown from it. Therefore, it is appropriate in many ways to describe his life as a myth. Kim is an inspiration, but his way cannot be followed any more.

Looking back on his accomplishments, I find many of them astonishing. Not everyone can start a business with just 5 million won ($4,210) and make it a company that exports $100 million in a few years. Determination and courage were his strength.

But that’s how far he got. As in all myths, you should be wary of excessive glamorization and selective ignorance. The failure of Daewoo Group is still painfully reflected in the Korean economy and society. A major wound is the astronomical public fund used on Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering after the dissolution of Daewoo Group. The sick giant is holding the fate of Korea’s shipbuilding industry. Daewoo Motors is fighting for survival 20 years after being sold to General Motors. Kim was fined 17.9 trillion won, and he only paid 0.5 percent of that.

As he passed away, what we need to do is review how the once second-largest business group failed and learn a lesson from it. We paid a high price to learn that transparency and the law are very important. While there are rumors of government oppression — even if it is partially true — the essence of the myth is that Daewoo had excessive debt, missed the timing for restructuring and made wrong management decisions. The glories should be recorded, but the failures also need to be acknowledged.

It would have been nicer if the great success of Kim Woo-choong and Daewoo Group were not a myth but an ongoing story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. As always, the merits and demerits of a major figure cannot be summed up in a few words. I hope he rests in peace after he said years ago that there was much to do and the world was too small.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 12, Page 32