What’s up with the Jaebols bashing Korean dramas? (#Kdrama 101: Class 13)

What’s up with the Jaebols bashing Korean dramas? (#Kdrama 101: Class 13)

What is Korean dramas’ favorite subject other than Romance?

I’ll give you a hint…. What is Korean dramas’ favorite punching bag?
You know what I am talking about!

Among the questions that I tend to get about Korean dramas, the topic of “Jaebols” or 재벌 tends to be one of the most frequent to come up. What is with Korean dramas obsession with “Jaebols?”

Well you have the obvious with the money and the glamour. But is that all? If so, what is with the whole hate and vile directed towards them about?

The trend of “bashing” corporations in popular culture is nothing unique to Korean and Korean dramas. Places where corporations are relatively more socially accepted like the U.S. do its fair share of bashing corporations in popular culture. It is a basic human tendency for those with less power to tear down those who have more.

Pen is mightier than the sword and such…

In this vein, corporations or businessmen and politicians are rather neck in neck in terms of being targets especially in the US where people are relatively freer to talk about their political leaders. Usually, the folks that influence popular culture tend to focus more on one party according to who the public views to have more power over them at the moment. Thus, the amount of attack a side gets from popular culture tends to seesaw between businessmen and politicians as time passes.

The interesting thing about Korea is that businessmen or “Jaebols” have gotten the sharp end of the stick for more than two decades consistently. In addition, Korean businessmen or “Jaebols” have never had the level of political influence that their US counterparts currently have. Politicians or at least pseudo- politicians have always reigned supreme. Well at least for the past half millennia.

Old Story Time…
For all of the Joseon dynasty period, which started about a half millennia ago, merchants or businessmen were the lowest rung of the social order. From the top, it went Scholars, farmers, craftsmen, and then merchants. Think of how Europeans thought of the Jewish for the last millennia as seen in works of art like William Shakespeare’s plays. If you remove the racial elements, you will get how the Joseon dynasty thought of merchants. They were to be tolerated in order to do the dirty work and even that was barely tolerated. So, the merchants had to basically provide financial gifts to the Politicians in order to just exist. That was the power dynamic between the politician class and the merchant class in Korea until about a century ago.

With the Japanese occupation and subsequent liberation, the social standing of the merchants slowly rose. The Korean War, while it basically destroyed everything in Korea, ended up destroying the landed nobility who had a stranglehold on the economy and society. So, the merchant classes had more leeway in society afterwards. Even so, with basically the desolation of the country, and the fact that Korea never had anything the size of what we would end up calling “Jaebols” meant that they had a long ways to go.

The first relative break the merchant classes got early on after the Korean War was the rise of the military dictatorship.

Go! Military dictatorship!
That’s a weird thing to say.

The dictatorship was focused on economic growth and was willing to give merchants, who could deliver an exports and job creation, a lot of leeway and protection against others in the society that looked down on them. Thus, the merchants became businessmen and ignited the economic dream that is the Korean of today.

However, the underlining conditions to the  dictatorship’s  support  was first be competent at one’s job and second was to know one’s place and not get any delusions of grandeur. Businessmen were still the dogs of the politicians, but they were now just being treated better because it was hunting season. For those who forgot this fact, well…

You get the idea.

Even up to this point, which is around the late 60s, even the largest Korean corporations were nothing more than midsize family enterprises. The second break the businessmen got was in the early 70s. The dictatorship went full on with the growth of the economy. Essentially, corporations, which could increase their size and also create additional companies, got huge amounts of tax benefits. Thus, the “Jaebols” was born. Over the next decade, corporations that could perform economically went from small family enterprises to “Jaebols.”

Oh and “Jaebols” is essentially translated into financial gangs/packs.
It is somewhat of a derogative term.

The “Jaebols” kept growing up till the 90s even after the military dictatorship faded out of existence. You would think at this point, their social standings would improve drastically once the civilian governments came into power.

The truth was more of the opposite since the newly empowered civilian politicians basically thought the business class to be greedy lowlifes like their forefathers before them. They were to be tolerated only to be extorted for all they were worth. The political and social high point of the business class was in 1992 where the chairman of Hyundai Group ran for president. It was the first and last time a major business class figure actually tried making the cross over and it was a slim chance at that. The political class chewed him up.

So, now in the 2010s, things are not great for the “Jaebols.” Among the top 30 “Jaebols” that existed going into the 90s, half of them are now gone without any new companies rising to claim their place. And the Korean economy taken a downward turn about a decade ago.  This further increased the political class’ hold on the business class.

The total number of regulations trying to restrain their activities tripled over the last 2 decades. The government’s direct and indirect control over the economy has risen that at least 30% of the population is getting paid in some way by taxes. The portion of the tax revenue gathered from Korean corporations, of which the majority is paid by Jaebols, is within the top 5 highest countries in the world. This is why about 50% of the eligible Korean tax payers do not pay any direct tax and the total public debt is about 105% of the GDP now.

And now “Jaebols” are the whipping boys of Korean dramas…While they were the subjects of Korean dramas before, the negative portrayal of them really only went into high gear about a decade ago.

What can I say? Sucks to be them…but it will suck more to be us in a decade or two.

In contrast, after the fall of the military government, Korean dramas interest in politicians have dwindled. There are some dramas about them, but they are few and far between. In addition, those shows tend to promote the view points of the politicians that are currently dominating the scene up on the hill.

Why is this?

There are many reasons for this and not all of sinister. However, it does not hurt that the major networks are basically control by the government in direct and indirect manners and Korean drama production companies are low profit entities that are eligible for government subsidies.

I’m just saying.

Korean Politicians can really screw with your life whoever you are unless you are a politician.

This was Prof. Akia. Thank you for reading this article! SHARE Them via social Media!!!!!!!!!

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