Samsung can’t take a joke; sues satirist

Samsung is the cheif deity among Korea’s pantheon of chaebols (conglomerates, usually family-operated, that dominate Korea’s economy).

As Michael Breen, a columnist at the Korea Times (where I used to write) found out, after writing a Christmas satire poking fun at various figures in Korean society, mocking a god has consequences:

Headlined “What People Got for Christmas,” the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant.

The piece was meant as a satirical spoof, the columnist says, but Samsung wasn’t laughing.

Breen’s column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.

On Dec. 29, the day of Lee’s pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.

That Breen’s piece was clearly satire is not as strong a defense as it would be in other developed nations. Neither is the fact that his jokes were based on the real corruption and arrogance that part and parcel of the way Samsung does business. In fact, a true statement might get a writer might get a journalist in hotter water since it could cause greater harm to a company’s reputation than a false one.

Breen will get some David v. Golieth sympathy from Koreans but that will be muted somewhat by the fact that he is a foreigner. Koreans are hardly immune from the instinct to protect their own from attacks by outsiders.

The Korea Times has already caved in to Samsung’s pressure and pulled the offending piece from Breen’s section on their web page. I suspect that Breen is also seeking to get out of a fight he will almost surely lose while retaining his honor. In the meantime, you can put a few bucks in his pocket by buying the book he put out a few years ago.

It is an unfortunate reality of life in modern Korea that rich and connected goons like Lee Kun-hee are even above being mocked.