What is weighing on Samsung?

EVEN IN A corporate world rife with despotic founders, complex cross-shareholdings and cultlike initiation rituals, Samsung stands out as the most mysterious of firms. Founded in 1938 as a provincial vegetable and dried-fish shop, it has grown into a conglomerate accounting for a fifth of South Korea’s exports. Its crown jewel, Samsung Electronics, has for years been one of the world’s biggest seller of smartphones, televisions and chips, with a market capitalisation of more than $270bn and 310,000 workers in 74 countries. The group’s riveting story, chronicled in a new book, “Samsung Rising”, by Geoffrey Cain, is one of entrepreneurial derring-do and excruciating work habits mixed with scandals, vendettas and political intrigue. What the author (a former contributor to this newspaper) skips over is how a company with so many well-documented flaws can be such a resounding success.

To get a sense of the Samsung enigma consider first its ruling dynasty. Long before Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, disappeared from view in April, Samsung’s chairman, Lee Kun-hee, vanished into hospital. The 78-year-old has not been heard from since 2014. No one outside the family knows how ill he is. His only son and heir-apparent, Lee Jae-yong, aged 50, faces a retrial on charges of influence-peddling, for which he spent almost a year behind bars in...



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