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Giant of Korean business world fades away

Posted March. 22, 2001 13:31,   


His hands were big and rough like stone. Callused and sun-tanned, the hands that did not seem to befit a conglomerate chairman were the very records of his 85-year life.

As a boy, Chung Ju-Yung, who was hungry no matter how hard he worked in the fields under the sizzling sun, ran away to Seoul at age 15. All he had were his two hands and a small sum of money. His father used to tell him: ``Your only educational background is the elementary school. You`re an ignorant country boy. Seoul is crowded with jobless people who graduated from university. Do you think you can make it there?`` He was tracked down by his father three times, but he had already made up his mind to stay.

Years later, his rough hands had helped make Chung a myth in the history of Korean business and in the modern history of Korea as well. And on Mar. 21, 2001, this mythological figure left the stage for good. His death signals the end of an era in Korea.

The descriptions that were used to describe Chung range from ``the man with the frontier spirit who makes the impossible possible,`` ``builder of the Korean economy,`` ``gambler who knows the future`` and ``magic power that moves reluctant people to march on.``

Behind the success he achieved, however, was a darker side. The mentality of pursuing the goal at all costs, which he helped foster, was one of the reasons for the Korean economy`s recent problems. Casting a shadow over his successes was the ill-advised expansion of the ``tycoon system,`` collusion with politicians, management by dynastic rule, and the suppression of labor.

The late honorary chairman of Hyundai Group was born on Nov. 25, 1915 in a village that is now in North Korea. He was the eldest of six sons and two daughters born to Chung Bong-Sik and his wife Han Sung-Sil. His parents were hard-working farmers but the family was still poor. Poverty seemed to be the family`s destiny as it was for others of that time. But the boy refused to give up. Chung, who became a farmer after graduating from elementary school, came to Seoul on his fourth attempt at running away from home.

He found a job as a deliveryman at a rice store and his sincerity and diligence soon paid off. Recognizing his ability, the owner sold his store to him and it became the foundation for Chung`s business empire.

He set up a car repair plant and earned money steadily. It was in 1947 that the turning point came. He founded a building firm that later developed into the Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. He became a hugely influential figure in the construction business by taking on the rebuilding work ordered by the U.S. Army after the Korean War and winning other post-war construction and civil engineering projects.

The future billionaire`s basic philosophy was to look to the future. He was also in the right place at the right time. Hyundai Engineering and Construction won big construction projects from the then military government as it pushed for the nation`s industrialization.

A representative project, undertaken jointly with former president Park Chung-Hee, was the construction of the Kyongbu (Seoul-Pusan) Highway. Chung led the construction work starting in 1968, tirelessly traveling to construction sites and getting the job done in only 29 months, an unheard-of pace.

Around that time, he made a surprise advance into foreign markets, thus opening a new chapter in Korea`s corporate history. He won a contract for the construction of a highway in Thailand, beating major construction firms from advanced countries. This expanded the horizons for Korean enterprises, which had rarely strayed outside the domestic market. Later, Chung`s efforts led to a Middle East boom among Korean construction firms.

Again, Chung was leading the pack. Originally a manual laborer, Chung was the symbol of the era of national development and was often seen in pictures rolling up his sleeves and working alongside employees on local construction sites.

Since the mid-1960s, he made inroads into industries beyond construction. Showing how visionary he was, Chung led a successful advance into the auto business, now one of the nation`s flagship industries. Judging that the future of industry was in cars, Chung jumped in with both feet.

In a country without much shipbuilding experience, he set up Hyundai Heavy Industries and made it the world`s largest shipyard. Almost all of the businesses he founded faced incalculably slim odds of success. However, he pushed through the new businesses with his unique brand of mental strength and brave decision-making.

He spoke for the Korean business world as five-time chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries starting in 1977. But the job was just practice for the big time.

Not satisfied with being ``only`` a business leader, Chung pursued a political career, vying for president in the 1992 election. His presidential bid ended in failure and his profile faded. Many people thought his best days were gone.

But he made a brilliant comeback. In 1998, he translated into action the ``North Korean project`` he had mapped out 10 years before and became the first South Korean businessman to visit North Korea. Transporting a herd of cattle, he crossed the border via the truce village of Panmunjom in the first event of its kind since the national division, attracting worldwide attention. His North Korea visit led to the realization of the ongoing Mt. Kumgang tours by South Koreans and helped foster an inter-Korean detente.

Chung was not at peace during his last days. He became increasingly tired and his health declined. What was more painful was the ``disaster`` that hit Hyundai and his family. Previously unshakable, Hyundai paid the price for its seemingly endless expansion over the years. The future of the group is still unclear.

His death came as somewhat of surprise because despite his 50 years of achievements, Chung left an uncompleted task.

Kim Dong-Won daviskim@donga.com