A Trans-Pacific Implementation of Employee Stock Ownership to Reduce Inequality: The Case of Ilhan New and Pre-War Korean Yuhan Corporation

Brian R. Gold

Since the nineteenth century much of the advocacy of employee stock ownership has urged its widespread adoption as a means by which businesses could directly redress inequality. Much of the scholarly literature outlining its implementation has focused on the U.S., where in fact it has been most prevalent. However, there were early adaptations of American ideas of employee stock ownership that provide suggestive case-studies regarding its efficacy in reducing inequality in widely differing national contexts. One of these was pre-war Korean Yuhan Corporation. Founded in 1926 as the first Korean pharmaceutical company, it quickly became a sector leader not only in Japanese colonized Korea but regionally. The treatment of Korean employees in the colonial era in both large Korean and Japanese businesses was exploitative and violently coercive. Yuhan founder Ilhan New’s implementation of employee stock ownership in 1936 made an astonishing exception to this reality, and is part explanation of why the company still thrives. It is one of the earliest ongoing implementations of such a system in world business history. New was influenced both by trends in American Protestant capitalist modernity and from his businesses success as co-founder of La Choy, the first major American ‘Chinese food’ brand.

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