Kim Woo-choong, founder of Daewoo business group, dies

Now-collapsed Daewoo Group founder Kim Woo-choong has died at 83

Kim Woo-choong, founder of the now-collapsed Daewoo business group whose rise and fall symbolized South Korea’s much turbulent rapid economic growth in the 1970s, has died. He was 83.

Kim died of pneumonia on Monday night at a hospital in Suwon, just south of Seoul, with his family at his side, according to the Seoul-based Daewoosky Institute, an organization of former Daewoo executives and employees. Kim was honorary chairman of the institute.

Born in 1936, when a single Korea was under Japan’s 35-year colonial rule, Kim started as a textile salesman and built Daewoo Corp. in 1967. The company later grew into South Korea’s second-largest business empire, producing everything from cars, ships, TV sets, refrigerators and other electronics to clothes.

Often dubbed by local media as “Kim Woo-choong myth,” his rise represented South Korea’s explosive economic development engineered by then-authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, who nurtured a small number of chaebol conglomerates like Daewoo with cheap loans and tax benefits during his 1961-1979 rule.

A self-proclaimed workaholic, Kim was a role model for youths in South Korea, who dreamed of achieving a similar rags-to-riches story. When he published a collection of essays titled “It’s a Big World and There’s Lots to be Done” in 1989, a million copies were sold within six months.

But his debt-ridden expansion strategy ran into trouble when South Korea was hit by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and banks tightened their purses. In 1999, Daewoo eventually collapsed and its affiliates were placed on a debt-workout program in the country’s largest corporate bankruptcy.

Just before its collapse, Daewoo had 41 affiliates at home and 600 branches and subsidiaries overseas, employing a total of 350,000 employees worldwide, according to Daewoosky Institute.

After the Daewoo collapse, Kim fled the country and lived in hiding overseas for years to avoid criminal punishment over high-profile fraud allegations.

He returned to South Korea in 2005 after almost six years of living abroad.

Kim served some time in prison as he received a 10-year sentence for embezzlement and accounting fraud charges, but was eventually released under a special presidential pardon in 2007. He separately received a prison sentence for stashing away company funds, but that sentence was suspended, so he avoided jail.

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