In the dynamic economic landscape of South Korea, five individuals stand as icons of wealth and success. Against the backdrop of Seoul’s modern skyline and a history marked by post-war recovery, these figures symbolize the nation’s ascent to global economic prominence. From powerhouse conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai to entrepreneurial ventures, their stories reflect the delicate balance between tradition and progress that defines South Korea. As we explore their lives, we uncover not only opulence but also the pivotal roles they play in steering the nation’s economic and technological trajectory, making indelible contributions to its remarkable success story.
List of the Wealthiest People in South Korea
Michael ByungJu Kim, a Korean-American billionaire entrepreneur, serves as the co-founder and partner of MBK Partners, a prominent private equity firm headquartered in Seoul, South Korea. Recognized as the “Godfather of Asian private equity,” Kim has played a pivotal role in MBK Partners, managing over $26 billion in assets. Notably, ING Insurance Korea, a company co-founded by Kim, made history in 2017 as the first wholly-owned private equity firm to list on the Korean exchange. Kim’s leadership was evident in MBK Partners’ significant $6.1 billion takeover of Tesco’s Korean operation, Homeplus, marking the country’s largest private-equity deal in September 2015. Born in South Korea and educated in the U.S., Kim obtained U.S. citizenship during his academic journey. Beyond business, he is an avid art collector and holds a position on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lee Jae-Yong, also known as Jay Y. Lee in the West, is a South Korean business mogul and executive chairman of Samsung Electronics since October 2022. With an estimated net worth of US$11 billion as of September 2021, he ranks as the fourth-wealthiest individual in South Korea. Joining Samsung in 1991, Lee assumed roles such as Vice President of Strategic Planning and “Chief Customer Officer.” Despite dimmed leadership prospects when his father, Kun-hee, stepped down, Lee’s trajectory shifted in December 2009 when he became the chief operating officer of Samsung Electronics. His strategic position continued to evolve, ultimately leading to his role as vice chairman of Samsung in December 2012. Recognized as one of Samsung SDS’s main shareholders, he owns 11 percent of the financial services subsidiary. He is characterized as having been groomed for leadership within the family business.
Seo Jung-jin, the third wealthiest individual in South Korea, is the co-founder of Celltrion, a leading biopharmaceutical company specializing in the production of drugs for cancer, influenza, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. With the remarkable success of biosimilars in the South Korean market, Celltrion has gained favor among investors. In March 2023, Seo resumed his position as chairman of the Celltrion group, committing to significant acquisitions after stepping down from the role two years earlier. Seo’s elder son, Jin-Seok, serves as co-chair of Celltrion Inc., while his younger son, Joon-seek, co-chairs Celltrion Healthcare. Seo founded Celltrion Inc. in 2002, leading it to an IPO in 2008.
Kwon Hyuk-Bin, a Korean billionaire and co-founder of Smilegate, Korea’s third-largest gaming company renowned for the Crossfire games, the most popular first-person shooter game in history. Kwon owns 100% of Smilegate Holdings, established in 2002, and achieved significant success, notably with the 2008 release of CrossFire through a partnership with Tencent. Smilegate Holdings is a major shareholder in SundayToz, a Korean mobile game developer. Kwon, through the Smilegate Foundation, has set up schools in China and Vietnam, focusing on IT education among other subjects.
Kim Beom-su, the founder of Kakao, South Korea’s predominant messaging app present in 90% of the nation’s smartphones. He resigned as chairman and departed the board in March 2022. Kakao serves tens of millions of users, offering features like gaming, shopping, and chatting. In 2014, Kakao acquired the country’s second-largest search engine, Daum, in a $3.3 billion all-stock deal, leading to a backdoor listing. The South Korean government designated Kakao as a large company in the same year, marking the first tech startup to achieve such status. In 2021, Kim pledged the majority of his wealth to charitable causes by signing the Giving Pledge.