“Chaebol.”

“Chaebol” is a Korean word for “rich clan.”[1]  Probably, in the misty past, that meant families that owned a lot of farm land.  One way or another, they probably had connections to the government.  In the misty present, South Korea has become a major industrial and commercial society.  So long as the Japanese Empire ruled Korea, the country remained a subordinate part of the rough-draft of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”  That is, it provided cheap labor and raw materials to Japanese industry.[2]  Then, in 1945, came liberation and national independence, if not national unity.  Then, from 1950 to 1953, came the terrible Korean War.[3]

After the war, the government of the Republic of Korea (aka ROK, aka South Korea) set out to join the modern world.  Those were hard times and there wasn’t much to go around.  The government channeled the scant available resources toward companies that were “bullish” on South Korea.  The government also fended-off foreign competition and stepped down hard on the labor movement.  The government pushed a drive for export-led growth.

Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and Hanjin are among the leading “chaebol.”  Generally, these are conglomerates of related industries within sectors of the economy.  Samsung makes electronics, Hyundai makes cars, and Hanjin is a (now bankrupt) shipping company.  That is, they try not to compete with one another.  Each one has his share of the pie.[4]

A glance at the names of the “chaebol” demonstrates just how successful this effort proved to be.  A further glance north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the Peoples’ Republic of Drudge,[5] shows an alternative strategy for development.  In any event, the “chaebol” have molted into families that own a lot of companies.  One way or another, they probably have connections to the government.  That is, rich people finance the election or re-election of pawns.

One “tarantula on a piece of Angel food cake” in this success story is the deep resentment felt by ordinary South Koreans.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the “chaebol” got scarce resources in very hard times.  Ordinary people had to do without.  That has become a folk memory.  Today, the “chaebol” continue to pile up wealth when South Korea no longer needs to fight for survival.  Ordinary people resent that selfishness.  The problem for the “chaebol” is that, in the 1980s, South Korea made the shift from a military-industrial complex government to something approaching a real democracy.  In these circumstances, no longer can every scandal involving the “chaebol” be swept under the rug.[6]

A second “tarantula” appears in the series of scandals and errors plaguing the “chaebol.”  The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s; Samsung phones catching fire; and the sinking of the ferry boat “Sewol”[7] all have called into question the ethics and competence of the “chaebol.”

Then there’s the sinking of the F.V. “Majestic Blue.”  But that’s unrelated.

[1] Carlos Tejada, “Money, Power and Family: Inside the Chaebol of South Korea,” NYT, 18 February 2017.

[2] Not that it has anything to do with economic policy, but you might want to see “The Handmaiden” (2016, dir. Park Chan-wook).  It has been described as an “erotic psychological thriller.”  JMO, but if this doesn’t get your motor running, then you’ve got issues.

[3] Americans commonly—and wrongly—believe that the horrors of that war are encapsulated in the Anabasis of the First Marines from “up on the reservoir” down to the sea.

[4] “Oh what a good boy am I.”

[5] I stole that from someone, perhaps from Walt Kelly.

[6] “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks…. Somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them… Decent people lost their jobs…. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.”–Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953).

[7] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_MV_Sewol

The Majestic Blue

I say “tuna” and you think “little cans of cat food.”  Not true: blue-fin tuna is light years better than yellow-fin or albacore or skipjack tuna.  Those other kinds end up in tuna-noodle casserole with little bits of potato chip crumbled on top and baked in the oven.  (Or so says Tom Tuttle from Tacoma.)  Blue-fin tuna can grow to be 12 feet long and weigh in at as much as 1500 pounds, although mostly they don’t.  The underbelly on blue-fin yields this yummy meat known as “toro.”  The Japanese use “toro” from blue-fin tuna to make sushi.

I say “sushi” and you think “it’s like eating live bait.”  Not true: sushi consists of fish, vinegared rice, and vegetables.  You can think of it as a rice-and-fish sandwich.  It started out in south Asia, was introduced to south China, and was borrowed by Japan.  In Japan sushi began out as a fast-food sold on the streets.  People going to the theater in the Edo Period often bought sushi from a stall to take to the theater with them.  A sushi-chef (which is different from a sous-chef) made sushi from whatever fish were caught locally.  The main tuna fisheries were off Honshu and Okinawa.  After the Second World War, those clever Americans figured out how to freeze-dry new-caught tuna.  It didn’t lose its flavor sitting on layers of ice in the hold of a fishing boat for weeks before it got back to Japan.[1]  “Toro” became the mainstay of sushi.  Japanese sushi-eaters went wild.

By about 1975 sushi started to become popular in certain quarters of the United States.  OK, you won’t find it on the menu at Appleby’s and you can’t get a McSushi (yet).  But the very sophisticated Don Rumsfeld took General Tommy Franks out for dinner to a sushi place in DC before we invaded Iraq.  It was Rumsfeld’s idea of making nice with the guy he had ordered to invade another country on a sketchy—as you young people say—justification.  Take the Japanese sushi market and add in the American “I-wanna-be-sophisticated” market, you end up with a HUGE demand for tuna.  Now, a big blue-fin fresh offa da boat can be worth $100,000.

I say “tuna” and you think “guppies with a thyroid condition.”  Not true: they’re big fighting fish.  Drag you out of the chair on the back of a 25-foot Bartram sports-fisher if you aren’t strapped in.  It’s OK with the fish if you drown in the Gulf Stream and what’s left of you washes up months later in Plymouth, England.  (It’s kind of like casting for pit-bulls from the back of an F-150 in North Philly.)  So, fishermen started seining for them with big nets.  In 1953, a refugee from Croatia named Mario Puratic[2] invented an improved system for setting and hauling purse seine nets.  (It’s called the “Power Block.”)  Seining fish, including blue-fin, became much easier.  There used to be a lot of blue-fin tuna.  In the 1940s there were 20 times as many Atlantic and Mediterranean tuna as today.  Also, now they’re runty when they get caught.  Tuna caught in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are only about half the weight of tuna caught in “the old days.”  Pretty soon, no more Atlantic blue-fin tuna.  (Pacific blue-fin stocks seem to be holding up alright for the moment.)  Once they go, there will need to be 12-step programs to help people suffering from sushi-withdrawal.  What do the Japanese think of 12-step programs?


[1] Also, the Americans stopped testing atomic weapons on Pacific atolls, so the fishing boats didn’t have to pass through clouds of radiation on their way home with their holds full of irradiated fish.  See: “Fishzilla.”

[2] Puratic was born in 1917 on the incredibly cute little island of Brac.  If you retired to the town of Supetar on Brac you could sit under the grape arbor beside your old stone house in the afternoon, sipping wine and watching the ferry from Split arrive.  A developer near Dallas is building a resort modeled on Supetar.  The signs at the garbage dump will be in Croatian.  Puratic left in 1938 and wound up working as a fisherman in San Pedro, California.