Repub­lic of Sam­sung

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So sprawl­ing is Sam­sung’s mod­ern-day em­pire that some South Kore­ans say it has be­come pos­si­ble to live a Sam­sung-only life: Use a Sam­sung credit card to buy a Sam­sung TV for your Sam­sung­made apart­ment in which you’ll watch the Sam­sung-owned pro base­ball team.

Sam­sung is South Korea’s great­est eco­nomic success, and, more re­cently, is also the sub­ject of ma­jor con­tro­versy.

Econ­o­mists, own­ers of smal­land medium-size busi­nesses, and some politi­cians say Sam­sung no longer merely pow­ers the coun­try, but in fact over­pow­ers it, wield­ing in­flu­ence that nearly matches that of the government.

Sam­sung draws the great­est scru­tiny be­cause it is by far the largest chae­bol – the Korean term for cor­po­rate groups that were jump-started with government sup­port – and be­cause it is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing run­away pros­per­ity as the rest of the econ­omy slows down.

The con­glom­er­ate con­trib­utes roughly a fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic prod­uct.

Some Kore­ans call the coun­try ‘‘The Repub­lic of Sam­sung.’’

Fa­mous glob­ally for its elec­tron­ics, Sam­sung would be one of the largest con­glom­er­ates in al­most any coun­try.

It’s a do-ev­ery­thing mono­lith, build­ing roads and oil rigs, op­er­at­ing ho­tels and amuse­ment parks, sell­ing in­surance, mak­ing not only the world’s best-sell­ing smart­phone, the Galaxy, but also sell­ing key com­po­nents to Ap­ple for the iPhone – even as the two bat­tle in a se­ries of law­suits.

Crit­ics see in Sam­sung closed-door wealth, a fam­ily af­fair in which chair­man Lee Kun-hee is pass­ing power to his only son, Jay Lee.

‘‘You can even say the Sam­sung chair­man is more pow­er­ful than the South Korean pres­i­dent,’’ said Woo Suk-hoon, host of a pop­u­lar eco­nom­ics pod­cast. ‘‘Korean peo­ple have come to think of Sam­sung as in­vin­ci­ble and above the law.’’

That sen­ti­ment has in­ten­si­fied in re­cent years, a pe­riod dur­ing which Sam­sung has ob­structed price-fix­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions – draw­ing only mi­nor fines – and seen its chair­man in­dicted for fi­nan­cial crimes, only to re­ceive a pres­i­den­tial par­don ‘‘in the na­tional in­ter­est’’.

Sam­sung, which be­gan in 1938 by ex­port­ing veg­eta­bles and dried Korean fish, be­came a bud­ding power af­ter the al­liance was forged be­tween its founder, Lee Byungchull, and the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor, Park Chunghee, who con­trolled the coun­try’s banks and de­ter­mined who got loans. His daugh­ter, Park Geun-hye, is pres­i­dent elect.

The con­glom­er­ate thrives now be­cause it makes good prod­ucts.

Photo: GETTY

Sam­sung’s Galaxy Note: Larger than a smart­phone and smaller than a tablet. The com­pany will likely sell 20 mil­lion of them this year. It’s al­ready sold over 100 mil­lion of its Galaxy smart­phones.

Lee Kun-hee

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