Kim Woo-choong, a legendary, controversial figure in the rise of South Korea as an industrial nation, has died.
Kim, who founded the Daewoo group, one of Korea’s biggest chaebol or conglomerates, in 1967 and then lost it in the 1997-1998 economic crisis, passed away in a hospital that had been part of his empire in Suwon, a provincial capital near Seoul. He was 82.
Although the Daewoo Group no longer exists, the name is remembered best for Daewoo Motor, the manufacturer that competed with Hyundai Motors. General Motors, which had partnered with Daewoo Motors in its formative years, gained complete control in a complex deal in 2002, and GM Korea still produces cars with the Chevrolet nameplate in the original Daewoo plant in Inchon.
Kim ranked along with Samsung founder Lee Byung-Chul and Hyundai’s Chung Ju-Yung as one of the dynamic figures responsible for Korea’s “economic miracle” from poverty after the Korean War to one of the world’s leading industrial nations.
Just as Kim seemed to have reached the zenith of his career, he fell victim to the excesses of success and a sudden downturn in the economy.
Kim lost his grip on Daewoo 20 years ago after all 25 Daewoo companies, suffering from debt-equity ratios of four and five to one, fell into the hands of creditors in the midst of “the IMF crisis”–the initials a reminder that Korea had to appeal to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout to stave off bankruptcy.
With his group $57 billion in debt, Kim took off for Europe, apologizing in a resignation letter in November 1999 for “errors in judgement, mistakes and negligence.” By the time he returned five and a half years later, more than 20 Daewoo executives had been tried and jailed.
Kim himself was tried, convicted and sentenced in 2006 to eight and a half years. Confined to a hospital, he was pardoned and freed by the Korean president, Roh Moo-Hyun, in a general New Year’s amnesty at the end of 2007.
The case ended the career of a man whose empire had its origins in a textile company in his native city of Daegu in southeastern Korea. (The name “Daewoo” is an acronym combining “dae” for great and “woo” for Kim’s given name.) Kim expanded his holdings exponentially as he bought out other companies, with the firm blessing and support of Park Chung-Hee, the president often credited with masterminding the rise of the Korean economy.
In recent years, Kim spent time in Vietnam advising Korean entrepreneurs on doing business in the country’s growing economy. Finally, last year, he returned to Korea for treatment for Alzheimer’s and died in Suwon’s Ajou Hospital, which he had founded at the height of his career.
The Daewoo name, meanwhile, lives on, most visibly in Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, one of Korea’s major shipbuilders. This year, however, the company, in economic distress, was taken over by Hyundai Heavy Industries–a reminder of Hyundai Motors’ supremacy over Daewoo Motor before the IMF crisis.