Chung Ju-yung, the rags-to-riches founder of South Korea's mighty Hyundai industrial empire, died on Wednesday aged 85. Born into a poverty-stricken farming family in 1915 in what is now North Korea, Chung helped propel South Korea from the ashes of civil war into an industrial powerhouse.
Chung died in hospital from complications from pneumonia, hospital officials said.
Chung left home at 18 to seek his fortune against the will of his father who wanted his first son to feed his family. He earned his first wage as a rice delivery boy. His first step on the road to riches came with his first ventures, a lorry firm and car repair company in the waning days of Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea. After World War Two, he branched out into the construction business, building Hyundai Group into
the country's largest conglomerate, manufacturing everything from microchips to supertankers, mobile phones to cars.
Chung's drive was legendary, and is characterized by his sale of a ship before Hyundai had even built its shipyards. Hyundai Group was an $80 billion global giant till it started to splinter last year, with the spin-off of its auto units and nagging cash shortages at construction, financial and semiconductor affiliates.
As problems mounted, Chung declared he would retreat from managing the conglomerate, which includes the world's largest shipbuilder, second largest memory-chip maker and South Korea's largest construction firm. Earlier this month, affiliate Korea Industrial Development, an apartment builder, collapsed, becoming the group's first bankruptcy. Two of his sons now run the Hyundai Group and the spun-off Hyundai Motor Group.
Chung's passion for hard work helped the construction firm and heavy industry affiliates flourish as South Korea industrialized
through the 1960s and 1970s. "Hard work, creativity and a capacity never to give up -- this is the essence of Chung's life," said Richard Steers, the author of his biography, "Made in Korea".
Chung also wrote an autography, in which he said work is ageless. "There is no such thing as getting old in work. There is always new work for the best worker and passion," he said.
A Seoul court sentenced Chung to three years in jail for embezzlement and fraud during his campaign for South Korea's presidency in 1992, later suspending the sentence.
Chung often complained the government was too heavy-handed with big business and petitioned for a freer business environment under a succession of dictators.
"Chung Ju-yung was a businessman but he was also a revolutionary," said journalist Mark Clifford in his book on South Korea, "Troubled Tiger".
More recently, Chung's ties to what is now North Korea made him a strong advocate of doing business with the long isolated North and prompted Hyundai to sign a $942 million investment pact with Pyongyang in late 1998. - (Reuters)