Chaebol Culture In Korea

What does it mean to be a Chaebol, and are Movie and K-drama depictions true to life?

Hongjoo Lee
a year ago

Chaebol Culture In KoreaSource: 프레시안

The Chaebol are often mentioned and featured in Korean media, so if you watch K-dramas, you've probably heard this term before.

Today we're going to explore what it means to be a Chaebol. How accurate are TV depictions of them and what is life really like for the elite class in Korea?

What Is A Chaebol?

What Is A Chaebol? - Penthouse promo pictureSource: sbs Penthouse

In Korea, "Chaebol" (재벌) refers to a company in which executives with huge capital are made up of blood-relatives and family members.

It is necessary to clarify the difference between the Chaebol and Buja (부자), another term you might hear, in that a Buja is simply a wealthy person with a lot of money or property. Chaebol specifically refers to an entire system in which a group of companies in various industries are led by one family. 

What Is A Chaebol? - Boys Over Flowers stillSource: kbs Boys Over Flowers

In other words, it can be generally summarized as a large scale corporate conglomerate that can have great power over other corporate groups based on the capital it has.

In Korea, Samsung, Hyundai, SK, LG, and Lotte are the representative Chaebols. In addition to these mega-Chaebol families however, there are companies all over the country with the characteristics of a Chaebol, just on a smaller scale.

Chaebol Criteria

Chaebol Criteria: Money pig from Squid GameSource: 티브이데일리

Because the meanings of Buja and Chaebol are distinct from one another, the standard of simply having more than others is not appropriate for defining the Chaebol.

However, since the inheritance tax of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee alone exceeds 10 trillion won, we can get an idea of the sizable wealth the family has.

Chaebol Criteria: Beauty Inside stillSource: jtbc Beauty Inside

Conglomerates or mid-sized companies with capital are classified as Chaebols when blood-related people hold high-ranking positions or run complex companies.

To be classified as Chaebol, one must be at least a medium-sized company. If you look at the billionaires in Korea right now, there are quite a few CEOs of medium-sized companies, but it is difficult to call small and medium business owners below that Chaebol.

K-Drama vs Reality

Are There Actually Many Female Chaebols?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: Female ChaebolsSource: 조선일보

The trend that has changed in recent Chaebol dramas compared to the past is that there are more female Chaebols, but are there actually many female Chaebols in Korea?

The number is not a lot, but it is growing. The proportion of women in major positions in large companies such as Hotel Shilla President Lee Boo-jin, Shinsegae Group Chairwoman Lee Myung-hee, and Orion Vice Chairwoman Lee Hwang-kyung, is increasing.

Do Chaebols Frequently Dress Up?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: dressing upSource: 뉴스인사이드

Park Joon-geum, who portrayed Moon Boon-hong in the SBS drama Secret Garden, attracted a lot of attention by showing off her head-to-toe luxurious fashion as the wife of a Chaebol. In fact, she even wore a coat worth as much as 100 million won in the drama!

However, in reality, each Chaebol has their preferred brands and style, and surprisingly many are more frugal in their spending.

Do Home Fashion Shows Actually Happen?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: Home fashion showsSource: 노트폴리오

Then what about fashion shows held at home that became a hot topic after being seen in dramas?

According to staff, this is a real thing, and sometimes the houses are set up better than the regular shows. 

For both the spring/summer collections and fall/winter collections, about 30-50 pieces ranging from casual wear to outdoor wear to party clothes are prepared and presented.

Do Chaebols Wear Shoes At Home?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: wearing shoes insideSource: KBS My Golden Life

In Korea, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is essential and expected to take off your shoes when entering a home.

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: Shinsegae Jung Yong-jin wearing shoes in his homeShinsegae Group Vice Chairman Jung Yong-jin (Source: redfriday)

However, in dramas it is common to see Chaebols wearing shoes inside their homes, and surprisingly, it is true that many real Chaebols do wear shoes in their homes.

Do Chaebols Have Personal Employees?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: personal employeesSource: sbs Penthouse

There are many instances in dramas where you'll hear a Chaebol telling someone "Call my lawyer", an indispensable line. In real life, Chaebols will have several personal lawyers and company lawyers as well.

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: maidsSource: 뉴스인사이드

Also, although the exact number differs for each Chaebol, it is true that many have personal employees such as butlers and maids at home as seen in dramas.

Do Chaebols Own Private Jets?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: BTS with private jetBTS using a private jet for overseas schedules (Source: 나우뉴스)

In dramas like Secret Garden, Boys Over Flowers, and Royal Family, you see Chaebols using private jets.

In fact, it is said that the heads of large corporations such as Hanhwa, SK, Samsung, and LG own planes worth 50 to 60 billion won.

However, there are not many cases of taking a private jet to meet a love interest like in the dramas.

How Important Is Education To Chaebols?  

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: Sky Castle promo photoSource: jtbc SKY Castle

If you watch dramas like SKY Castle and Penthouse, you see a lot of situations where both parents and students are burning with enthusiasm for school.

In real life, from the third generation of Chaebols on, undergraduate study + graduate study abroad is often the standard course, so from childhood, education is very important.

Therefore, even if you're the child of a Chaebol, without the proper qualifications of studying at prestigious universities, it is difficult to justify the succession of management rights.

Are There Many Bad Chaebols?

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: Veteran movie stillSource: movie Veteran

If you look at dramas or films, the Chaebols are often "bad", and their character arc involves some sort of personal awakening and ultimately becoming a better person.

Because of that, people may think of the Chaebol as hostile or difficult people.

Chaebols in K-Dramas vs Reality: GS Group's Huh Chang-sooGS Group Chairman Huh Chang-soo (Source: 연예톡톡)

Of course, as they are human, there are Chaebols who have been problematic, but in reality, there are also many who lead a frugal life, and who donate and volunteer with a generous heart.

There are people who know what money cannot buy and have a heart to share what they can with others.

Black Card Identity

Black Card Identity: Yoon Se-ri holding a black cardSource: tvn Crash Landing On You

In dramas and movies, there are often scenes in which the protagonist pulls out a "black card".

The black card, which has established itself as a definite symbol of wealth in the 21st century, is the best credit card that is more difficult to acquire than most would imagine.

The black card is a status symbol that represents power in a capitalist society because of how much it costs just in annual fees, the issuance conditions, and spending limit.

Black Card Identity: Hyundai The BlackSource: 티스토리

In Korea, the famous black card is Hyundai's The Black.

With an annual fee of 2.5 million won, this card is famous as the most expensive card in Korea. This card is issued by invitation only, but an invitation is not a guarantee of approval for the card as an 8 person jury, including Hyundai Card Vice Chairman Chung Tae-young, must unanimously approve it.

Black Card Identity: BTS Jin paying with The Black cardBTS Jin paying for Suga's birthday party with The Black card (Source: 인사이트)

Korean celebrities who have this card include BTS Jin, G-Dragon, Bae Yong-joon, Lee Jung-jae, Jung Woo-sung, Jun Ji-hyun (Gianna Jun). The Black was launched for the top 0.05% and is issued to customers who spend at least 10 million won per month.

The benefits are also huge. Card holders are provides vouchers for luxury brands and for Galleria Department Store Luxury Hall, as well as first class hotel vouchers.

In addition, there is a flight ticket upgrade service, a concierge service that recommends an itinerary or makes a reservation when going abroad, and discounted price at partner golf courses on weekdays.

Who Are The Famous Chaebols Of Korea?

Lee Jae-yong (이재용)

Famous Chaebols: Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yongSource: 엑스포츠뉴스

The first person that comes to mind when you hear the word "Chaebol" in Korea is Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and president of Samsung Group.

Samsung is the largest multinational corporation in South Korea and ranks first in terms of total capital as of 2021. It is a group that exerts tremendous influence in all areas of Korea's economy, society, politics, and culture.

Lee Won-ju (이원주)

Famous Chaebols: Samsung chairman Lee Jae-yong's daughter Lee Won-ju with an iPhoneSource: 티스토리

Lee Won-ju, daughter of Lee Jae-yong recently made headlines because she was seen using an iPhone, even though her father is head of Samsung.

However, she says she now currently uses a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3. 

Famous Chaebols: Samsung chairman's daughter Lee Won-ju and her friends from influential familiesSource: 티스토리

In addition, some of Lee Won-ju's "royal family" friends have been revealed. In the photo above, Lee Won-ju is 6th, we also see the granddaughter of the Gudang Garam founder (1), the daughter of the Baidu CEO (2), the Oracle Corporation CEO's daughter (3), US Republican Senator Tim Scott's daughter (5), granddaughter of the Pfizer CEO (7), and the granddaughter of German banker Martin Zielke.

Lee Boo-jin (이부진)

Famous Chaebols: Hotel Shilla CEO Lee Boo-jinSource: 일요신문

Lee Boo-jin is the CEO of Hotel Shilla, and Lee Jae-yong's younger sister.

She joined Samsung Group in 1995 and in 2010 became the first female CEO at Samsung Group.

Famous Chaebols: Samsung CEO Lee Bu-jin & Im Woo-jae wedding photoSource: 나무위키

Lee Bu-jin caused a lot of controversy when she married her now ex-husband, Im Woo-jae, because he was a regular employee at Samsung C&T, who came from an ordinary family without the kind of power and influence of a Chaebol family.

It was the kind of story you might see in a drama. 

Her parents, Lee Kun-hee and Hong Ra-hee, were staunchly opposed to the couple's relationship, but Lee Kun-hee was shocked by Lee Boo-jin's hunger strike and eventually agreed to it.

Im Se-ryung (임세령)

Famous Chaebols: Daesang Group Vice Chairwoman Im Se-ryunhSource: 나무위키더팩트

Im Se-ryung is the vice chairwoman of Daesang Group and ex-wife from Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong

Famous Chaebols: Actor Lee Jung-jae & Daesang Group vice chairwoman Im Se-ryungSource: 동아일보

She has been dating Actor Lee Jung-jae since 2015. In 2019, they were seen on a date together in Hong Kong.

She has become known for her bougie fashion, as she is usually seen carrying Hermes bags worth over 10 million won or luxury clothing worth billions of won.

Chung Eui-sun (정의선)

Famous Chaebols: Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chun Eui-sunSource: 동아일보

Chung Eui-sun took over his father's position in 2020 and became the second chairman to Hyundai Motor Group.

He is the owner of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and KIA Tigers. Since 2005, he has also served as president of both the Korea Archery Association and the Asian Archery Federation.

Noh Hyun-jung (노현정)

Famous Chaebols: Noh Hyun-jung, wife of Hyundai CEOSource: 나무위키

Noh Hyun-jung was not a Chaebol from the beginning. She was originally a KBS News anchor and MC of the former entertainment program Sang Sang Plus.

In 2006 she announced her marriage to Hyundai DS&C CEO Chung Dae-sun and resigned from her job.

Famous Chaebols: Noh Hyun-jang & Hyundai DS&C CEO Chung Dae-sun wedding photoSource: 중앙일보

The internet was shook at the news. Many people felt uncomfortable with the situation, as the once familiar anchor became the daughter-in-law to a Chaebol family.

Since her marriage, she has not appeared on any TV shows, anti is said she occasionally makes an appearance for Hyundai and important family events.

Chey Tae-won (최태원)

Famous Chaebols: SK Group chairman Chey Tae-wonSource: 중앙일보

Chey Tae-won is the chairman of SK Group and chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He also serves as the president of the Korea Handball Association, and for a while he was the youngest among the heads of large corporations in Korea, though now he is in the average age range.

Koo Kwang-mo (구광모)

Famous Chaebols: LG Group CEO Koo Kwang-moSource: 카카오

Koo Kwang-mo, who became the head of LG Group in 2018, is called "대표" meaning representative instead of "회장" or chairman in order to break the authoritarian image.

He is known for his humble and easygoing personality, even speaking casually with employees, but is still highly regarded for his strong business skills and insight in his work.

Lee Myung-hee (이명희)

Famous Chaebols: Shinsegae Chairwoman Lee Myung-heeSource: 인사이트코리아

Lee Myung-hee has served as the chairwoman of Shinsegae Group since the split from Samsung in 1997 and has grown the company into one of the biggest retailers in Korea.

It is said she was able to go to a lot of competing department stores because shew as relatively unknown to the public, so studied them for reference.

Because she was mother-in-law to the charismatic actress Go Hyun-jang, she was called "무서운 시어머니의 끝판왕", which means the ultimate scary mother-in-law.

Jo Suae (조수애)

Famous Chaebols: Dosan CEO Park Seo-won & his wife Jo SuaeSource: 여성동아

Jo Suae entered JTBC as an announcer in 2016 after breaking through a competition ratio of 1,800 to 1.

However, two years later, she announced she would be marrying Park Seo-won, CEO of Doosan Magazine, and leaving JTBC.

Recently, her 3-year-old son was very talked about after posting a video of him to her story.

Yonji Ham (함연지)

Famous Chaebols: Ottogi chairman Ham Young-joon & his daughter  Yonji HamSource: 이코노믹리뷰

Yonji Ham is the eldest daughter of Ottogi chairman Ham Young-joon, and is a musical actress and YouTuber.

Her YouTube subscriber count sits at 450k as of January 2022.

She also made headlines by inviting her father to be a guest on her YouTube channel on Parents' Day in 2020.

Famous Chaebols: Ottogi chairman's daughter Yonji HamSource: 머니투데이

She often uploads content about her daily life to social media and whatever she drinks, wherever she eats, whatever she does soon become a topic of discussion.

So did you learn anything new about the Chaebol culture in Korea today? Did you gain new insight into your favorite dramas?

If there are any burning questions we didn't answer in the post, feel free to ask us in the comments.