This story is part of Forbes’ coverage of Korea’s Richest 2021. See the full list here.
Optimism surrounding South Korea’s economic recovery energized its stock market, lifting the fortunes of its wealthiest people. Poised for one of the world’s fastest comebacks, the country reported GDP growth of 1.6% in the first quarter, surpassing pre-pandemic levels with consumption, exports and investments all rebounding. The benchmark Kospi index was up 47% since we last measured fortunes 11 months ago, boosting the collective wealth of the 50 richest by over 40% to $156 billion.
In a year that saw a record haul of 46 billionaires, all but one of the 45 individuals who returned to the list from last year notched up gains. The biggest percentage-gainer was Bom Kim, whose wealth was up sixfold to $6.4 billion, following the mega listing of his online retailer Coupang on the New York Stock Exchange. Often compared to Amazon, Coupang raised $4.6 billion in what was the biggest IPO of a foreign company in the U.S. since Alibaba.
The landmark year saw a change at the very top. Long-time No. 1 Lee Kun-hee, the ailing, second-generation head of the Samsung empire, passed away last October at age 78 leaving behind a vast fortune that was distributed among his heirs. The new No. 1 is a self-made billionaire—a first for the list since it was launched in 2005. Pharma magnate Seo Jung-jin, cofounder of Celltrion, landed the prime spot with $12.5 billion, thanks to increased sales of the firm’s biosimilar drugs.
Not far behind Seo is Lee’s only son, Jay Y. Lee, this year’s biggest dollar gainer, who rose to the No. 2 spot with $12.4 billion, after inheriting a portion of his late father’s estate. His mother, Hong Ra-hee, who inherited the largest part of her late husband’s fortune, is now listed on her own at No. 6 with $7.1 billion. The late patriarch’s daughters, Lee Boo-jin and Lee Seo-hyun, also benefited from their inheritance and moved up to No. 9 and No. 11 respectively.
They are among the six people who more than doubled their wealth this year. Others in this group include tech tycoons Kwon Hyuk-bin of online gaming outfit Smilegate and Kim Beom-su of internet giant Kakao. Apparel maker Kim Chang-soo, last year’s debutant, rose 17 spots to No. 32 after shares in his F&F soared from its expansion into China.
The ranking features two newcomers: Bang Shi-hyuk of Hybe (formerly Big Hit Entertainment) came in at No. 16 with $2.7 billion, thanks to a much-anticipated IPO in Seoul last year. Bang, the mastermind behind K-pop phenom BTS, saw his wealth soar in April after announcing the purchase of Ithaca Holdings, which represents American pop stars Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. Newcomer Gim Seong-gon is Korea’s first green-energy billionaire whose CS Wind, a maker of wind towers, benefited from the government’s push for renewable energy.
Among the three returnees was Kwon Hyuk-woon of IS Dongseo, who rejoined the list after a three-year hiatus. IS Dongseo, a builder of luxury housing, saw its profits nearly double thanks to rising real estate prices.
The cutoff to make the list rose to $940 million from $610 million last year. Five individuals dropped off the list, including Lim Sung-ki of drugmaker Hanmi Pharmaceutical, who passed away in August; his estate was not settled before net worths were finalized.
Full Coverage of South Korea’s Richest 2021:
With reporting and research by Jang Jinwon, John Kang, Kim Minsu, Kim Yeong-moon, Lee Zinone, Oh Seung-il, Park Jihyun and Shin Yunae.
The list was compiled using information from the individuals, analysts, government agencies, private databases, stock exchanges and other sources. Net worth numbers are based on stock prices and exchange rates as of the close of markets on May 14. Private companies were valued by using financial ratios and other comparisons with similar, publicly traded companies. The estimates can include a spouse’s wealth and, if the person is the company founder, the wealth of sons and daughters that is derived from that company. The list can also have those who are included due primarily to extensive business and residential ties to South Korea, or citizens who don’t reside in the country but have significant business or other ties to the country. In cases in which the fortunes of family members are based on the same company, we combine these members into one listing, as long as each of them has enough wealth to qualify for the list on their own.