For 40 years, South Korea was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
When the economic crisis came in 1997, it hit the country hard. People even gave up their jewelry to the government to help out. Four years later, Korea still is suffering. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the problems facing Daewoo Motor Ltd.
I have been to Korea many times over the past few years. And I know a lot of people who worked with the Koreans as the country's auto industry pushed for massive globalization in the mid-1990s.
Working with, or for, the Koreans is never dull, it seems. One former European employee told me recently: 'Everything revolves around Korea in terms of decisions; how the cars are built and what they are like. The Koreans only really like dealing with each other. They just do not build cars for anywhere other than Korea, but we have to sell them.'
Another told me: 'What you agree with the Koreans in your own market may come back as a different story by the time it has been discussed in Korea. There was a great naivete about the Koreans. They never really talked or worried about market share. It was all about capacity. The grand plan was to be in the top 10 manufacturers in the world - it didn't really matter whether you sold all these cars, as long as you were building them somewhere.'
The Korean chaebol was built by self-made people such as Kim Woo-Choong of Daewoo, a shirt salesman who was urged to industrialize by his government. These conglomerates built huge businesses in cars, electronics, computers, construction and ships.
But in the end, decisions always have been made by The Chairman. His authority is largely unquestioned. This can plunge the organization into chaos. In 1999, I attended the Seoul Motor Show. During a meeting with Chairman Kim, he asked our small group of journalists if we had seen the new Kunsan plant. Some had not.
'OK, you will go tomorrow,' the chairman said. I could see the color leave the faces of our Korean press people as they ran the logistics quickly through their heads - nine people; flight schedules; how to change plans already in place. Kim was one step ahead: 'You can take my helicopter.'
Trip cut short
So the next day we squeezed in a previously arranged, speedy visit to the Pupyong plant. Then we packed ourselves into the Daewoo-badged Huey helicopter (made under license in Korea) parked outside.
After 90 minutes of rattling over the Korean countryside, we landed. We toured Kunsan as promised before boarding the helicopter to rattle back.
An hour into the flight the pilots became agitated and started searching the ground. This is unsettling when you have no idea what is going on, and you are 500 feet up in a helicopter.
I looked down and saw a soccer match. As we spiraled slowly down, the referee suddenly picked up the ball and the players ran from the field, allowing us to neatly touch down in the center circle.
Somewhat bemused, we asked what was going on. At last one of the ashen-faced press people admitted: 'Oh, the chairman wants his helicopter back - now. The railway station is over there.'
Such is the power of The Chairman. All beneath him have to obey, no matter what the effect.
Now wanted for falsifying balance-sheet figures, Chairman Kim has apparently gone into hiding. At the end of February, union officials were trying to hunt him down in Europe. At that time, a reliable diplomatic source told me he had seen Kim eating lunch - in Seoul.