The combined net worth of the 50 wealthiest South Koreans was $110 billion through July 2019, according to Forbes. That figure marked a 17% decline from 2018, as the country's economy took a direct hit from the trade war between the U.S. and China. Samsung's Lee Kun-hee, for example, saw his net worth shrink to $16.8 billion from $20.6 billion, yet remained at the top of the list of South Korea's billionaires for the eleventh consecutive year.

Key Takeaways

  • South Korea had 45 billionaires in 2018, according to Forbes.
  • The total net worth of the 50 wealthiest South Koreans saw a 17% decline in 2019 due, in part, to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.
  • The top 4 Korean billionaires have a net worth of $36.6 billion, down from nearly $50 billion in 2018.
  • The country represents the fourth-largest economy in Asia and the 15th largest in the world.
  • A handful of companies, led by the Samsung Group, dominate the business community and hold significant sway over political matters.

1. Lee Kun-hee, $16.8 Billion Net Worth

Lee Kun-hee is the most well-known and influential person in South Korea. He is the third-generation chairman of the Samsung Group, a massive company that represents more than 20% of the entire Korean economy. Samsung posted record revenue of $218 billion and a net profit of approximately $50 billion in 2018.

Samsung Electronics, a subsidiary of the larger Samsung Group, is Kun-hee's most noteworthy legacy and the second-largest information technology company in the world after Apple. Other subsidiary companies include Samsung Heavy Industries, Samsung Engineering, Samsung Everland, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, Samsung Life Insurance, and Cheil Worldwide.

Lee has been at the helm of Samsung since 1987. His legacy has been somewhat tarnished by a slush fund scandal that forced him to relinquish control of the Samsung Group between 2008 and 2010, but he has unquestionably left an indelible mark on South Korea.

2. Seo Jung-jin, $7.4 Billion Net Worth 

Seo Jung-Jin saw a dramatic decrease in net worth for 2019, falling to $7.4 billion from $11 billion. Seo is the founder and CEO of biopharmaceutical company Celltrion. The company's subsidiary, Celltrion Healthcare, went public in 2008. Revenues have soared since then, with the release of new drugs to treat lymphoma, breast cancer, influenza, and rheumatoid arthritis. However, after reaching record highs in March 2018, shares of the company lost more than half its value through mid-2019 and that helps to explain the dramatic change in Seo's net worth.

Seo is known as a bold entrepreneur. He was named a member of the board of directors at Daewoo Motors, yet left in 2002 to start Celltrion. He knew little, if anything, about the biotechnology industry but was convinced that healthcare would be a significant part of the world economy.

3. Kim Jung-ju, $6.3 Billion Net Worth

Kim Jung-ju is an entrepreneur, investor, and founder of South Korea's biggest gaming company, Nexon. He holds the CEO position for NXC Corporation, which is the holding company for Nexon, and is also a partner of a New York-based venture capital firm called Collaborative Fund. Kim moved up two spots in the ranks of South Korea's wealthiest, to number three from number five, despite seeing his net worth shrink to $6.3 billion in 2019 from $6.5 billion in 2018.

4. Jay Y. Lee, $6.1 Billion Net Worth

Jay Y. Lee is the only son of Lee Kun-hee, and that distinction has earned him access to part of Samsung's vast fortune. Lee, whose given name is Lee Jae-yong, has been groomed for years to be the successor to the Samsung Group empire, and he has been vice chairman of Samsung Electronics since 2013.

$65,500

The median income in South Korea for the year 2018.

In 2017, Lee began a year-long sentence for bribing a confidante of the then South Korean president to secure a merger. He was released from prison in February 2018. Many in South Korea call him "Crown Prince of Samsung." Compared to his father, Jay Y. Lee is considered cold, uncharismatic, quiet, and subtly playful, a leadership style criticized by some in the Korean media. His net worth in 2019 was $6.1 billion, down from $7.9 billion the year before.