Nearly half a century ago, Byung Chull Lee started a rice mill in the Korean countryside. Armed with the Confucian teachings of his father, he expanded the rice mill into transportation, then real estate and now one of Korea's largest conglomerates, producing 8 percent of that country's gross national product.
Today at age 72, Lee is known as the father of Korean business, sort of the David Rockefeller of his nation, who not only heads a major diversified firm but is a philanthropist. This year marks the 100th anniversary of trade between the United States and Korea, and Lee is an example of how that business has prospered.
Lee, in Washington this week to meet with corporate heads and dignitaries, formed his company, The Samsung Group, in 1938. Now it is composed of 26 companies, from shipbuilding to clothing manufacturing, with 100,000 workers. It was listed as 125th in Fortune's Top 500 companies outside of the United States in 1980 and is involved in 15 joint ventures, including production of color television tubes with Corning Glass Works, operating petrochemical plants with Amoco of the United States and Mitsui Petrochemicals of Japan, and other projects with General Electric Corp., Pierre Cardin Clothes and London Town Corp., which makes London Fog clothing in Baltimore.
He also is scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Boston University next Friday, a day set aside as B.C. Lee Day.
Lee, whose company exports 60 percent of its product, said he is concerned about increasing protectionist sentiment against Asian imports and attempts to close markets to them.
"We are currently witnessing an increasingly more heated controversy between the United States and Japan and the advanced world, including Europe, in terms of the trade imbalance," Lee said. "I see practically little means by which this controversy can be settled in any easy manner."
Lee said he had predicted several years ago that, if trade imbalances persist, he wouldn't rule out "armed conflicts or hostilities among nations." Lee said he stands by that prediction.
Japan has no recourse but to export goods because it has poor natural resources, Lee said. On the other hand, the United States has more resources but wastes them. For example, Lee said in the United States "there are a total of 100 million cars on the road, almost one car for one person," Lee said. "You can easily imagine the amount of gasoline consumed by all these cars."