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Daewoo founder passes away

Kim Woo-Choong, the man who built Daewoo into an export colossus and fled when it collapsed, has died.
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Kim Woo-Choong, the founder of the Daewoo group, has died of pneumonia aged 82 after a long fight against chronic ailments.

Kim was born in 1936 in the city Daegu, in what was then a colony of imperial Japan. Kim's father was reportedly a teacher and mentor to future president and military strongman Park Chung-hee, and later a provincial governor.

Park, who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, was looking to rebuild the country after the Korean War, in which at least two million civilians died on the peninsular, and wanted to create an export-oriented industrial economy.

As part of this push, he handed out tax breaks, soft loans and subsidies to companies which met the targets laid out in his government's five-year plans. This generally favoured established conglomerates or chaebols, but also helped to fuel the rise of the Daewoo Group.

Daewoo was founded in 1967 by Kim as a clothing and textile manufacturer. As labour costs began to rise, the company moved into shipbuilding.

Over time, Daewoo began to diversify into electronic components and later consumer electronics, aeronautics, weapons, heavy duty industrial machinery, hotels, building construction, financial services, and telecommunications.

It wasn't until late 1982, when it purchased majority control of Saehan Motor, that the company began devoting time and resources to the automotive sector.

All of Daewoo's early vehicles were rebadged and lightly reworked Opel vehicles. Starting around 1988 Daewoo followed in the footsteps of Hyundai, and began aggressive export drive lead by its LeMans hatch (below), which was a 1984 Opel Kadett with new bumpers and grille, and Pontiac badges.

By the time the car reached Australia in 1994 it was already beginning to show its age. Like other Korean manufacturers, Daewoo was keen to wean itself off shared platforms, technologies and drivetrains, and it hired Dr Ulrich Bez from BMW and Porsche to become its head of engineering.

At its height, Daewoo was the South Korea's second largest chaebol or conglomerate, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hyundai, Samsung and LG.

In 1999, buffeted by the Asian financial crisis and struggling under the weight of at least US$50 billion ($113 billion adjusted for inflation) of debt, the Daewoo group collapsed and Kim fled the country.

He returned to South Korea in 2005 and was immediately arrested. Found guilty of accounting fraud worth 20 trillion won, nearly 10 trillion won in illegal financing and syphoning 19 trillion won out of the country, Kim was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Two years later his sentence was reduced on appeal before Roh Moo-hyun gave him a presidential pardon.

After the conglomerate's collapse, many of the companies were sold off or spun out. The only significant remnant to still use the Daewoo name is the ship-building and marine engineering division.

In 2002, GM, through Holden, along with Suzuki and SAIC purchased a controlling stake in Daewoo's auto making division.

Starting in 2005, the Daewoo brand was withdrawn from the Australian market with some models being rebranded as Holdens, meaning the Kalos lived on as the Holden Barina, while the Lacetti survived as the Viva (above).

The Daewoo brand survived in its homeland until 2011 when GM phased it, rebranding all of its vehicles as Chevrolets.

Today just one car sold in Australia — the Holden Trax — is produced in a factory which once made Daewoos.