South Korea’s Powerful Family Business Ties Could Be Tough to Cut

With South Korea’s biggest business empire, Samsung, caught up in a nationwide political scandal, a new generation of South Korean leaders has vowed to rip up that playbook. Major candidates in Tuesday’s election for president have said they will clamp down on South Korea’s family-controlled business empires, called chaebol, which dominate the country’s economy and have amassed immense political power.

“Chaebol family control as we know it could end with this generation,” said Kim Woochan, a professor of finance at Korea University Business School in Seoul, the South Korean capital, pointing to an intensifying backlash against inherited wealth. “An opportunity as good as this one is unprecedented.”

But that could be easier said than done, South Korean officials and experts say. While the public blames the chaebol for an embarrassing series of political and business scandals and for holding back the country’s once-surging economy, they continue to hold considerable political power. Their controlling families have also proved adept at finding ways to keep control, even as they face increasing challenges from inheritance taxes, unhappy outside investors and their own family squabbling.

“Leaders, markets, they don’t change overnight,” said Rhyu Sang-young, a professor of political economy at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Every culture has a strong legacy, inertia. It takes time.”

The front-runner in Tuesday’s election, Moon Jae-in, has vowed to stop families from using nonprofit foundations, complicated shareholding plans and other methods to keep control of businesses. One of his main advisers is Kim Sang-jo, an economist known for hawkish views on the chaebol.

But the Democratic Party, led by Mr. Moon, holds only 119 seats in the 300-member legislature, the National Assembly. The Democrats would find it hard to get…

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