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Business trends

South Korea business lobby to be led by top chaebol for first time

Selection of SK's Chey comes after period that conglomerates kept low profile

Chey Tae-won has led SK Group, South Korea's third-largest conglomerate, since 1998. (Photo courtesy of SK Group)

SEOUL -- SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won was elected to lead the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Wednesday, marking the first time that the chief from one of the largest of South Korea's sprawling family-owned chaebol helms the powerful lobby.

Chey pledged to contribute toward creating social value and resolving national challenges, saying after his election that business groups play a larger role than in the past, including by recommending economic policy.

South Korea's chaebol conglomerates have kept a lower profile in recent years after drawing heat for some having ties to the bribery scandal that unseated President Park Geun-hye in 2017. But Chey's comments signal that they are ready to reclaim an active role in influencing policy.

KCCI counts roughly 180,000 members, from small businesses to major corporations. It submits policy recommendations to the South Korean government and forges relationships with business lobbies in other countries.

At 60, Chey is the oldest leader from the four largest chaebol: Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG.

"He's the right person to lead South Korea's business community," one insider said, echoing a common sentiment in the country's corporate circles.

SK Group companies operate in fields such as pharmaceuticals, energy, chemicals and semiconductors. Among the chaebol, SK in particular has focused on environmental, social and governance issues. The group seeks to keep pace with President Moon Jae-in's efforts in those areas, including decarbonization.

Chey also faces a range of challenges to South Korean businesses as the new head of KCCI, from the coronavirus to strained ties with Japan.

KCCI is not the only big business lobby in South Korea. The Federation of Korean Industries served for years as the face of the country's business community, but many chaebol kept their distance from the group partly due to government pressure. FKI lost further influence after the top four conglomerates left the group in the aftermath of the Park scandal.

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