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  • P-ISSN 1738-656X

한국개발연구. Vol. 12, No. 1, May 1990, pp. 31-68

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The Concentration of Economic Power in Korea (Written in Korean)


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The concentration of economic power takes the form of one or a few firms controlling a substantial portion of the economic resources and means in a certain economic area. At the same time, to the extent that these firms are owned by a few individuals, resource allocation can be manipulated by them rather than by the impersonal market mechanism. This will impair allocative efficiency, run counter to a decentralized market system and hamper the equitable distribution of wealth. Viewed from the historical evolution of Western capitalism in general, the concentra­tion of economic power is a paradox in that it is a product of the free market system itself. The economic principle of natural discrimination works so that a few big firms preempt scarce resources and market opportunities. Prominent historical examples include trusts in America, Konzern in Germany and Zaibatsu in Japan in the early twentieth century. In other words, the concentration of economic power is the outcome as well as the antithesis of free competition. As long as judgment of the economic system at large depends upon the value systems of individuals, therefore, the issue of how to evaluate the concentration of economic power will inevitably be tinged with ideology. We have witnessed several different approaches to this problem such as communism, fascism and revised capitalism, and the last one seems to be the only surviving alternative. The concentration of economic power in Korea can be summarily represented by the "jaebol," namely, the conglomerate business group, the majority of whose member firms are monopolistic or oligopolistic in their respective markets and are owned by particular individuals. The jaebol has many dimensions in its size, but to sketch its magnitude, the share of the jaebol in the manufacturing sector reached 37.3 % in shipment and 17.6 % in employment as of 1989. The concentration of economic power can be ascribed to a number of causes. In the early stages of economic development, when the market system is immature, entrepreneur­ship must fill the gap inherent in the market in addition to performing its customary managerial function. Entrepreneurship _of this sort is a scarce resource and becomes even more valuable as the target rate of economic growth gets higher. Entrepreneurship can neither be readily obtained in the market nor exhausted despite repeated use. Because of these peculiarities, economic power is bound to be concentrated in the hands of a few entrepreneurs and their business groups. It goes without saying, however, that the issue of whether the full exercise of money-making entrepreneurship is compatible with social mores is a different matter entirely. The rapidity of the concentration of economic power can also be traced to the diversification of business groups. The transplantation of advanced technology oriented toward mass production tends to saturate the small domestic market quite early and allows a firm to expand into new markets by making use of excess capacity and of monopoly profits. One of the reasons why the jaebol issue has become so acute in Korea lies in the nature of the government-business relationship. The Korean government has set economic development as its foremost national goal and, since then, has intervened profoundly in the private sector. Since most strategic industries promoted by the government re­quired a huge capacity in technology, capital and manpower, big firms were favored over smaller firms, and the benefits of industrial policy naturally accrued to large business groups. The concentration of economic power which occured along the way was, therefore, not necessarily a product of the market system. At the same time, the con­centration of ownership in business groups has been left largely intact as they have customarily met capital requirements by means of debt. The real advantage enjoyed by large business groups lies in synergy due to multiplant and multiproduct production. Even these

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