South Korea’s top four chaebol groups are gearing up to secure supply chain resilience and salvage their global businesses from the rising geopolitical uncertainties reshaping industrial dynamics.
From expanding their public affairs organizations to hiring seasoned ex-government officials, the conglomerates are coming up with measures to minimize the impacts of increasingly protectionist policies around the world, especially in the US and Europe.
Their spending on lobbying activities has also surged in recent years, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks corporate lobbying activities in the US.
Last year, Samsung spent $5.79 million on lobbying funds, up 74 percent compared to 2020. SK also raised its spending on lobbying, from 3.68 million in 2021 to 5.27 million in 2022. In the two years, Hyundai Motor also increased its lobbying fund from $2.91 million to $3.36 million. The main lobbying targets were the US White House, Senate, House of Representatives and Department of Commerce.
Here are the key members of the Big Four’s revamped global public affairs teams.
Samsung Electronics, a global tech giant leading in semiconductors and mobile devices, has hired a number of government officials from both South Korea and the US in recent years. The hires are an apparent move to better respond to uncertainties surrounding policy changes in key markets.
Samsung’s Global Public Affairs team, launched in 2018, is headed by two chiefs overseeing the semiconductor and mobile device businesses respectively.
Executive Vice President Kim Won-kyong, who is in charge of the mobile device business, is a trade and commerce specialist who served as a general director at Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Born in 1967, Kim studied law at Korea University before going on to earn a master’s degree in law at Georgetown University. Since joining Samsung as a marketing strategist in 2012, he led the public affairs team in North America until he was appointed to head the GPA team in 2018.
Vice President Kwon Hyouk-woo, a former public servant, joined Samsung last year to handle issues related to Samsung’s sprawling chip business in the US, including a new $1.7 billion foundry plant in Taylor, Texas.
Beginning his career at the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy, he served as the general director in charge of the American trade division at the ministry. Kwon, who has extensive experience in trade policies, also served as the chairman of the Safeguards Committee at the World Trade Organization from 2018-2019. He graduated from Georgetown Law School and earned a lawyer license in the US.
Samsung Electronics America also hired former US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert as its public relations chief last year and as the company’s executive vice president in Washington. Prior to his service as the top envoy here between 2014 and 2017, he had also served as chief of staff for US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, chief of staff for the US National Security Council, and assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs at the US Department of Defense.
Upon his appointment, Samsung said Lippert’s insight into policy changes and regulations in the US will play a key role in building its business strategy in the all-important US market.
About half of the US public affairs team, or 15 staff members, are reportedly deployed at the Washington office, working closely with the GPA team in Korea.
SK Group, the nation’s No. 2 conglomerate whose business spans from chips to EV batteries to renewable energy, established the Global Public Affairs Team under the Supex Council, the group’s top decision-making body, in March this year to bolster its responsiveness to policy changes in key markets.
As the head of the team, the conglomerate appointed Executive Vice President Kim Jeong-il, who served as the deputy minister for international trade and legal affairs at the Trade Ministry.
Kim passed the civil service examination in 1994. He nurtured extensive experience handling international affairs related to North American trade, energy and free trade agreements.
Kim joined SK Square, the group’s investment arm, in February last year to oversee the company’s strategy for global expansion.
In addition to handling global affairs, promoting Busan’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo is another task for Kim. SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, who doubles as chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is also co-chair of the port city’s World Expo bid committee.
"Companies are obviously greatly affected by the regulations such as the US' Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act, and the rivalry between the US and China. So SK came to establish the GPA team to identify potential risks in advance and come up with response measures," an SK official said.
While SK Group has yet to hire any foreign government officials to include in its global affairs teams, the company positively considers the option, the official added.
SK USA has expanded its Washington office, while SK hynix also established a local office in the Washington area separate from the SK USA office earlier this year.
SK hynix, the world's second-largest memory chipmaker, also set up a Global Operation Task Force last December to effectively respond to regional issues.
Hyundai Motor Group has tapped two former presidential aides with a track record in handling foreign affairs to lead the auto giant’s government relations divisions.
Kim Il-beom, a former secretary to the president for protocol, was recently named as a vice president. Even though he has not yet started his official term, he is highly likely to lead the company’s policy coordination or policy support office this month, according to a Hyundai official.
Both teams work at the forefront of tackling pending policy issues linked to the carmaker’s overseas markets, especially the US’ Inflation Reduction Act and Europe’s Critical Raw Materials Act.
In essence, every government-related issue from policy review to human networking will be their daily jobs, the official added.
Kim worked as the assistant secretary of then President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol’s foreign press team. He then served as the president’s secretary for protocol before resigning from the post in March this year. As a presidential interpreter, he also served for three former presidents. In 2018, he served as a director of the North American division at the Foreign Ministry before joining SK Group’s Supex Council, the conglomerate’s top advisory group, a year later.
Kim Dong-jo, former spokesperson for the foreign press at Yoon’s office, also started his term as a director at the carmaker’s policy coordination office from June. Kim is known to have experience in administration as well as international relations. He worked at the Foreign Ministry’s multilateral trade cooperation division; the Korean embassies in Geneva and Senegal; and the office of secretary to the president for protocol.
Hyundai seems to be actively hiring outside experts to accelerate its global expansion, ditching its rigid corporate culture.
“Global mobility markets, and the electric vehicle sector in particular, has a wide range of variables that can tip the scales in the business. It is important for Hyundai to embrace diversity in high-level executives to tackle the challenging global landscape rather than promoting those who have been loyal to the company,” said Kim Pil-su, a car engineering professor at Daelim University.
LG Group, South Korea’s fourth largest conglomerate with industry-leading affiliates of such as LG Energy Solution and LG Chem, has newly established a think tank earlier this month to analyze the varying industrial policies of countries around the world.
Launched under the LG Management Development Institute, the LG Global Strategy Center is tasked to monitor and analyze the different policies countries introduce and prepare global strategies for its affiliates to handle the impacts, according to LG Group.
To lead the think tank, the group appointed Yoon Chang-ryul, an administration expert who served as the first deputy director of the Office for Government Policy Coordination for the former Moon Jae-in administration. Since passing the administrative exam in 1990, Yoon has mostly worked in the prime minister’s office.
As LG's key battery company LG Energy Solution and its chemical arm LG Chem have directly come under the influence of the US' Inflation Reduction Act, LG Group has also been reinforcing its office in Washington, located near the US Congress.
Along with its launching of a Washington office in January last year, LG appointed Joe Hagin, former White House deputy chief of staff for former US President Donald Trump, to co-head the Washington office with Executive Vice President Im Byung-dae.
Hagin is a White House veteran who has served former US presidents such as George W. Bush, and also played a role in planning the North Korea-US summit in Singapore in June 2018.
“The role of Washington offices of Korean conglomerates has been renewed and bolstered in recent years. As they are increasingly becoming key investors in the US and Europe, local governments are making very concrete and direct requests,” said an industry source who wished to be unnamed.
“In order to more effectively handle the issues, more outside members experienced in international trade and government affairs are expected to join their public affairs teams."