Long before “Parasite” won the Oscar for Best Picture and K-pop groups performed on “The Tonight Show,” South Korea’s best-known export was Samsung, an obscure maker of cheap microwaves that Western expatriates in the country had taken to calling “Sam-suck.” Today, Samsung is a household name, and a bigger smartphone maker than Apple. But its path to the top was strewn with secret deals, price fixing, bribery, tax evasion and more, all of it overseen by an ultrasecretive, ultrarich family ready to use every means at its disposal to stay in command.
The journalist Geoffrey Cain tells this story in “Samsung Rising,” and in his account both the good and bad of Samsung were imprinted upon it in its earliest decades. The company was founded in 1938 as a shop selling vegetables and dried fish. South Korea after the war was a poor backwater. And as Samsung’s founder, Lee Byung-chul, expanded into sugar, finance, chemicals, electronics and beyond, he felt he was building not just a business, but the entire nation of South Korea along with it.Over-the-top, world-conquering ambition became a Samsung signature, as did unquestioning reverence for company brass and military-style discipline. Cain describes a leaked video in which seas of Samsung recruits parade in formation, holding up placards to form moving patterns. “It was amazing, scary and weird,” one employee told Cain.South Korea’s leaders were mostly happy to accommodate Samsung’s ambitions, and by the 1960s the company was already a symbol for how political connections could lead to great riches. Samsung’s coziness with the government grew as the company did, helping its chairman, Lee Kun-hee, twice be granted presidential pardons for white-collar crimes. Today, across the Republic of Samsung, as South Korean cynics call their country, it can feel impossible to escape the company’s influence, which stretches from gadgets to hospitals to art. (A Samsung heiress, Miky Lee, was the executive producer of “Parasite.”)Cain lived in South Korea on and off for years between 2009 and 2016. His is a brisk, balanced telling of the Samsung story, though there is much more here about American smartphone marketing strategy than most readers could ever want. Samsung did not cooperate, which is not surprising for a big tech company. But, then, Samsung seems more interested than most in hiding aspects of itself from the public eye.It keeps a tight lid, for instance, on almost anything to do with the ruling Lee dynasty. Cain interviewed one member of the clan, but they remain a frustratingly distant presence in his book’s pages. This is a shame, because the Lees are a truly HBO-worthy bunch. The ailing patriarch, Kun-hee, is a mercurial loner who breeds dogs and spends his free time speeding around in sports cars on Samsung’s private racetrack. His son and heir, Jae-yong, is widely regarded, Cain writes, as “more entitled than he was competent.” The family’s unending feuds, tragedies and intrigues are the stuff of fascination among South Koreans.The Lees’ maneuverings have gotten Samsung into trouble in recent years. In 2017, South Korean courts ruled that the company had bribed the country’s president to win support for a corporate takeover that solidified the family’s control over the empire. Lee Jae-yong served barely a year in jail before his five-year sentence was commuted.Samsung did just fine financially during that time. As Cain puts it: “If the empire was posting record profits while its king-in-waiting sat in jail, then what was the point in having a king-in-waiting?”Cain helps answer his own question when he recounts a conversation he had at that time with a former Samsung boss. With the Lees in crisis, “Our empire is not an empire,” the man laments. “We are becoming like any corporation.”