Samsung heirs in Korean family feud

04/25/2012 12:00 AM

04/24/2012 10:00 PM

Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of one of South Korea's largest business conglomerates, Samsung Group, and the country's richest man, is not known for being talkative.

Partly because of his reticence, his few public remarks are studied by his reverential employees with the same zeal that Christians might apply when parsing biblical quotations.

These days, however, Lee, 70 – perhaps the country's most exalted business leader – is displaying a wholly different side, allowing himself to be caught up in a public squabble with his elder brother and a sister over the fortune amassed by their father, Lee Byung-chull, who founded Samsung.

On Monday, the elder brother, Lee Maeng-hee, called his younger brother "childish" and "greedy."

On Tuesday, the Samsung chairman said of his brother: "He says with his own mouth that he is the eldest son of our family, but no one in our family, including myself, regards him as such. In fact, I have never seen him showing up for the family ritual for our father's anniversary."

That is about the worst thing one can say publicly about a son, particularly the eldest son, of a Korean family in this Confucian society, where the annual rite for deceased ancestors is considered to be the most sacred duty of children.

"These guys are better than Korean soap operas," Thomas Coyner, a management consultant based in Seoul who is the author of "Doing Business in Korea," said of the gossip the feud has inspired.

The dispute has become a sensation in a country where the financial elite face growing scrutiny in an election year and, as Coyner put it, people still hold a "traditional perception that if you are very wealthy, you got there by illegal means."

But Chung Sun-sup, head of Chaebul.com, a website that specializes in monitoring the country's family-controlled conglomerates, generally known and spelled as chaebol, said there was a reason for Lee Kun-hee to panic: His siblings are demanding part of the shares he controls in Samsung Life, the largest South Korean insurance company, which is also the biggest shareholder of Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel of the conglomerate.

"Depending on how the court rules or whether the siblings can settle their dispute outside court, this could threaten Lee's control of the entire group," Chung said. "He must feel like he is standing at the edge of a cliff. No wonder he reacts so sensitively."

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