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Derivatives: Korea still reeling from knock-out blows

Corporate Korea is caught in the aftermath of a derivatives disaster. One CEO tells how he nearly signed a deadly contract. Many others weren’t so lucky. As KiKo fiasco litigation continues, work is under way to avoid a repeat catastrophe. Lawrence White reports

KANG HOON LEE had a lucky escape. “If I had signed that piece of paper,” he says, “it would have probably meant the end of my company.” He had, he says, three such chances to doom M Corporation, the company he had founded in 1997 and built to become one of Korea’s leading energy and chemicals conglomerates. In early 2008 corporate Korea had one obsession: the Korean won’s steady appreciation against the dollar. This threatened the export-driven economy, as companies found their products harder to sell overseas. Through the early part of 2008, corporate treasurers seemed to witness an unstoppable market force that threatened to crush their businesses. Then came visits from banks, both local and foreign, that appeared to offer a way out.

“I was visited by three local banks,” recalls Lee, “all of which said to me: ‘Let’s do KiKo.’”

Lee lights a cigarette in the quiet Italian restaurant in the ­student-oriented Hongdae district of Seoul where he has invited ­Euromoney to lunch. He pauses, eyes bright with the memory of his narrow escape, as he waits for his son, on a break from his studies in Vancouver and drafted in to the lunch as a translator, to relay his words.