Conglomerates scrambling to prevent chairmen from being summoned
By Lee Hyo-sik
Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and other conglomerates are on alert as lawmakers are moving to summon their leaders as witnesses during the National Assembly audit of government agencies next month.
Business groups are scrambling to find ways of getting their chairmen or CEOs off the list of those to be summoned; but the Assembly is poised to call in a record number of businesspeople for questioning over a wide range of controversial issues.
The Assembly audit was initially intended to inspect whether ministries and other government bodies performed their duties properly. But over the past few years, lawmakers have opted to summon and grill heads of large businesses, instead of policymakers, to attract more attention from voters.
According to the National Assembly Secretariat, Thursday, 119 businesspeople were summoned during last year's audit. This year's number is expected to exceed it.
In the past, the ruling party attempted to block business tycoons from being summoned as witnesses, as opposition parties used them as a tool to criticize the president and Cabinet members.
But this time, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) seems to be more eager to publicly embarrass chaebol owners than opposition parties, according to chaebol watchers.
The Moon Jae-in administration has been spearheading efforts to change the governance structure of conglomerates and force them to treat their small business parties better, as well as penalizing their inter-subsidiary dealings.
"We are mobilizing substantial resources to prevent our top managers from appearing before lawmakers during the Assembly audit in October," said an official at one of the nation's top conglomerates, who declined to be named.
"In the past, we were able to interact with assistants to lawmakers and convey our opinions to them. But it has become harder to do so after the Choi Soon-sil corruption scandal," the executive said. "There isn't much room for us to maneuver but we will do what we can. If our chairman or CEOs are summoned, we will have them ready for lawmakers' questioning."
Lawmakers belonging to the Trade, Industry and Energy Subcommittee and the Environment and Labor Subcommittee, among others, have requested dozens of chaebol owners and their subordinates to attend the audit, scheduled to begin Oct. 12.
In particular, Rep. Park Yong-jin of the DPK has vowed to summon Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo over the carmaker's recall of vehicles equipped with the Theta 2 engine. Park claims Korean consumers were treated unfairly in the recall as Hyundai offered better compensation packages to American motorists.
"It is lawmakers' given right to summon businesspeople for questioning. But they shouldn't use that right recklessly because it could adversely affect companies," said an executive at a major business association, who declined to be named.
"Many seem to want to question chaebol chairmen to gain greater public attention, but they should refrain from doing so because it doesn't do any good to anyone. If they really want to deal with what is at issue, they can call in company executives or others familiar with the matter."