It may sound like another boring board-room shuffle, but the vote capped a far more heated dispute that erupted when U.S. hedge fund Elliot Associates, the third-largest shareholder in Samsung's construction firm C&T, opposed the deal. In a remarkable and uncomfortable twist, the group and its founder, Paul Singer, quickly found themselves the targets of anti-Semitic slurs and cartoons.
Incredibly, for several weeks the Samsung C&T Web site itself featured cartoons that depicted Singer as a hook-nosed vulture. The American financier was dubbed "Vulture Man" in a series of images on the Web site's home page, portrayed as a selfish creature obsessed with money and exploiting people.
In the South Korean business press, allegations of Jewish financial influence were openly discussed. The blog Mediapen.com published an article about Singer that said Jews were known to "wield enormous power" on Wall Street. “Jewish money has long been known to be ruthless and merciless," columnist Kim Ji-ho wrote, according to the Times of Israel.
Meanwhile MoneyToday, a popular South Korean business Web site, published an article that said Singer's religion was a factor in the case. “Elliott is led by a Jew, Paul E. Singer," the article, published June 22, noted. "According to a source in the finance industry, Jews have a robust network demonstrating influence in a number of domains.”
In an interview with Sisa Press that was published Monday, Olympic official and former diplomat Park Jay-son said that "Jews are scary because they control the currency markets and investment banking firms." According to the Weekly Standard, Park is the author of books titled "The Jew's America" and "Jewish Power Controls The World."
Before long, this rhetoric sparked international outrage, with the Simon Wiesenthal Center issuing a statement of condemnation. After global coverage of the cartoons and slurs, Samsung C&T and Mediapen.com removed the offensive images and texts from their Web sites. "We categorically denounce anti-Semitism in all its forms, and we are committed to respect for all individuals," Kwang Seop Han, the executive vice president and head of communications at Samsung C&T, said in an e-mail to the New York Observer.
Is the South Korean business world really so anti-Semitic? One recent poll published by the Anti-Defamation League found that the country was the third-most-hostile toward Jews in all of Asia, second only to Malaysia and Armenia. However, Jews who have lived in South Korea — the small Jewish community there is mostly made up of foreigners — didn't necessarily agree. In fact, some argued, many Koreans seem to view Jews as intelligent and successful people they'd like to emulate: The Jewish book of laws has become a bestseller in South Korea, according to the New Yorker.
“Koreans love the Jews," Seoul-based Rabbi Osher Litzman told Tablet Magazine after the ADL poll came out.
Singer himself doesn't seem to think that anti-Semitism is at the core of the problem. "I don't think the Korean people are anti-Semitic," the financier said at the CNBC Institutional Investor conference on Wednesday. "I think there are some parties in this situation who want to paint this situation as Korea vs. the foreigners. And the Jewish component, I can't imagine why they thought that was something that would get traction."
It's an argument that carries some weight. Samsung is so large and successful that some wonder if it threatens to overwhelm the state of South Korea: Some Koreans even refer to the country as "the Republic of Samsung." The conglomerate is one of a number of South Korean "chaebol" that are run largely by family dynasties. To comply with new laws, theses conglomerates has been forced to list some affiliate companies on the stock exchange, and that's where things get complicated.
Elliott Associates had argued that a plan for Samsung C&T to be taken over by Cheil Industries, another Samsung company, had offered too low a price for C&T shareholders. Remarkably, according to the Associated Press many South Korean shareholders had agreed with that assessment but voted for the deal Friday out of a sense of nationalism and duty. “There are a lot of people who are just biting the bullet,” one elderly shareholder told a meeting before voting in favor of the deal himself.
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