Dreaming of a Laissez-Faire Korea: Protestant 'Self-Reconstruction' Capitalists, 1910s-1990s

  • Author / Creator
    Gold, Brian R
  • This dissertation traces the evolution, survival and re-emergence of a Korean ‘self-reconstruction’ capitalism from the 1910s to the 1990s. Self-reconstruction capitalist thought and practice kept alive in the ‘margins’ the only tradition of classical economic liberalism in modern Korean history, one inextricably mixed with Korean and American Protestant ethical thinking. It provided a laissez-faire capitalist model that stood in contrast to the developmental state-led capitalism used first by the Japanese colonial government and then the South Korean state to enact the ‘economic miracle.’ Because of its Protestant background it overlapped with but differed significantly from the neoliberalism that has prevailed in South Korea since the 1997 Asian Crisis. Following a laissez-faire capitalist model, self-reconstruction capitalists consciously diverged from developmental state business and social practices. These divergences included seeking profitability, business focus, independence from government loans, and allowing their offspring to marry outside the elite. In contrast the developmental state encouraged maximizing revenue, business diversification, reliance on government-backed loans, and, socially, intermarriage within the business and political elite. Self-reconstruction capitalists were the first Korean capitalists to implement employee stock sharing plans, and corporate philanthropy. They were also the first to advocate export-led growth, and the value of societal ‘trust’ as essential to economic development. Using archived materials and interviews with their peers conducted in both Korea and the U.S., Chapters Two and Three covers the lives and careers of the two first generation self-reconstruction capitalists. Chapter Two focuses on Ilhan New, the Korean-American founder of Yuhan Corporation. New was one of the first major capitalists in Korean history, and the protégé of the early major nationalist Sŏ Chae-p’il. Chapter Three focuses on Chŏn T’aek-bo, the ‘forgotten father’ of South Korean export-led growth who won the first national awards for top exporter in the 1960s five years in a row. Despite this, as an impediment to the developmental state, he was the first capitalist divested of his business empire by military dictator Park Chung Hee. Using archived materials and interviews with their peers and children conducted in both Korea and the U.S., Chapter Four traces the ties and interactions among a sub-section of the business elite in South Korea through the 1960s to the early 1980s. This sub-section was the second and third generation of self-reconstruction capitalists, who founded and sustained some of the largest and most influential business groups in the country, such as Daesong, Byucksan, and HanGlas. It describes the differing fates of their enterprises in the face of the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis as tied to their pursuit of self-reconstruction capitalist business practices. This chapter also examines the important role played by the Korean Christian Businessmen’s Committee (KCBMC), which reached its zenith of influence in the 1970s. The KCBMC and its American parent organization argued that laissez-faire Protestant businessmen were the most ethical humans alive, and therefore the ‘natural’ leaders of Korea. Joining the KCBMC in the 1970s as a rising ‘star’ in the Hyundai group, Lee Myung-bak took this lesson to heart. As South Korean President from 2008 to 2013, Lee pursued the ‘dream’ of a laissez-faire, classical liberal Korean economy. Although his attempt ran up against the realities of a now neoliberalist South Korea, Lee’s administration provides a fitting epilogue for this study, by pointing to the re-emergence of self-reconstruction capitalism, an alternative strain of economic thinking and business practice that was little-noticed during the decades of developmentalist supremacy, yet persisted from the 1910s into the twenty-first century.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2014
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.