The New Rich Are Overtaking Old Money in Korea’s Billionaire Rankings

A new elite of uber-rich entrepreneurs is shooting up the wealth rankings in South Korea, overtaking the families behind the country’s decades-old sprawling conglomerates known as “chaebol.”

Brian Kim, the founder of mobile-messaging app Kakao Corp., is the most prominent example with a fortune of $13.2 billion, recently replacing Samsung group heir Jay Y. Lee as the nation’s richest person. But other self-made billionaires abound.

There’s Chang Byung-gyu who completed a listing of game developer Krafton Inc. just this week, and Bom Kim, a South Korea-born U.S. national who took e-commerce giant

Coupang Inc. public in the U.S. earlier this year. Seo Jung-jin, the founder of biotech firm Celltrion Inc., is worth about $10 billion. The changing of the guard is a sign that South Korea’s $1.6 trillion economy is entering a new era of growth, becoming less reliant on the family-controlled corporations that wield immense power in all aspects of life. Some experts say the new wealthy are more aware of rising inequality and are more willing to give back to society. Others question whether they’ll be any different from those who built their old empires using cozy links to politicians and bureaucrats.

“It’s a positive shift for South Korea,” said Kim Kyonghwan, dean of the graduate school of entrepreneurship at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, a city near Seoul. “The new rich offer a silver lining for younger folks by showing how fortunes can be made independently, rather than from inheritance.”

For decades, the chaebol have served as pillars of the Asian “miracle economy” that arose from the ashes of the Korean war. Political leaders have relied on conglomerates including Hyundai, Samsung, LG and Hanjin to rebuild the nation, giving them outsized influence. Over the years, some of them shot into the spotlight for scandals and cases of corruption that made international headlines, sparking backlash from the public. President Moon Jae-in has vowed to overhaul chaebol business practices and his government kicked off reforms last year to improve corporate governance and transparency.