National tragedy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am


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The suicide of Hyundai Asan chairman Chung Mong-hun on Monday came as a tremendous shock to South Korea's political and business establishment. The 55-year-old tycoon was a son of the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai business empire. Since his father's death two years ago, the younger Chung had also been the main man on economic co-operation between South and North Korea and had played an important role in the country's turbulent political and business world.

His sudden death and tragic life elicited a great deal of public sympathy. Indeed, many here see his suicide as a political, as much as a personal, tragedy.

One of seven sons, he was always his father's favourite. He was also the most talented businessman. After graduating from university, he joined Hyundai's shipyard as an ordinary employee. He rose to head the shipping unit in the early 1980s and then launched the group's ambitious electronics and semiconductor subsidiary. Thanks partly to the fast expansion of the unit, Hyundai became South Korea's largest conglomerate in the early 1990s, surpassing archrival Samsung.

In 1992, Chung embarked on a new gamble to help his father's presidential bid, managing his campaign, which briefly electrified national politics.

But after his father lost the election, Chung junior, as well as the group, faced tough times. He served a jail term for misusing company funds to finance his father's campaign.

As if to reward such devotion, Chung senior elevated his fifth son to the top management position of the group in the late 1990s. That, however, triggered a nasty power struggle with his brothers.

As a result, the chosen son lost the profitable Hyundai Motor subsidiary to an older brother, while another cash cow, Hyundai Heavy Industries, fell into the hands of a younger brother.

He was left with only the Hyundai Group's by-then money-losing construction and electronics subsidiaries, along with several other profitable but tiny companies.

But he inherited the enterprise that was most dear to his father's heart - Hyundai's business initiatives in North Korea. Chung visited the North numerous times with his father to strike deals with the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

In 1998, Hyundai was given permission to run a high-profile tour business to the North's scenic Mount Kumkang. It was hailed as a breakthrough project that would melt the 50 years of ice between the two Koreas. In fact, the North and South soon agreed to a historic summit meeting in 2000, for which then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Peace Prize.

But Hyundai's North Korean projects were making heavy losses. And last year, Chung became embroiled in an explosive payment scandal related to the summit. Hyundai was accused of paying the North at least US$100 million to get Kim Jong-il to agree to hold the meeting. In recent weeks, the ill-fated son had been under intense investigation by prosecutors in connection with the scandal, as well as a separate political slush fund case. His associates said Chung had looked tired and depressed lately.

On Monday morning, he took his own life by jumping from his office on the 12th floor. In his suicide note, Chung pleaded for the continuation of inter-Korean business co-operation and asked for his ashes to be spread on Mount Kumkang. In many ways, he was the latest victim of Korea's national division.