Economic visionary Kang Seok-hoon reflects on his journey and leadership at KDB

Kang Seok-hoon
Kang Seok-Hoon, chairman, Korea Development Bank

Kang Seok-hoon (M.S. and PhD ’91) is one of the most influential figures in Korea’s economic landscape, currently serving as the chairman of the Korea Development Bank (KDB). After earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Seoul National University, Kang pursued graduate studies in econometrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

His career has spanned academia, where he built a reputation as a respected scholar and instructor, to the public sector, where he served as a senior advisor to Korea’s president. Now at the helm of KDB, a state-owned financial institution crucial to Korea’s economic development, Kang continues to shape the nation’s financial future. Throughout his career, he has maintained a close connection to UW–Madison, serving as the president of Korea’s Wisconsin Alumni Association chapter and inspiring a new generation of students.

In a recent interview, Kang shared insights on his journey, his leadership at KDB, and his fond memories of UW–Madison.

 

Reflecting on your time at UW–Madison, what stands out to you? 

The University of Wisconsin was recognized as one of the top three universities at the time for the econometrics field, which is one of the reasons I chose this university. The professors were all very good, particularly three major econometrics professors: Arthur Goldberger, Jim Powell, and Charles Manski. These three were leading in the field, so UW’s econometrics studies were far beyond many other universities.

The city of Madison was fascinating. It was very beautiful and very safe. And the people of Wisconsin are very kind. Additionally, there were many students from Korea attending, so that made it easy for me to get accustomed to everything.

After 15 years of teaching economics at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, you transitioned to government. How did this come about?

When I was engaged in research, I was very interested in not just in theory, but how to employ my ideas and policies into reality. I wrote many articles for prominent newspapers, and I participated in lots of public discussions and also private talks. By the time I was asked to serve, I was not just a professor, I had become a kind of influential person in Korean society.

It is because I was in that position that the future president, Park Geun-hye, asked me to join her campaign. I advised the campaign in the field of economics by providing ideas and strategies.

In 2012, she suggested that I run for the National Assembly. I was elected to represent the Seocho District, which is in the Gangnam region. While on the National Assembly, I had many important roles, including chairing committees on taxes and pension reforms.

In 2016, I was appointed as senior presidential secretary for economic affairs. Under my position there were several ministries, including the Ministries of Finance and Economics, Employment and Labor, Industry, and other independent agencies.

Presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol asked you to participate in his campaign as well. Did you anticipate that too would lead to another role in government?

The media guessed that I would be selected as one of the cabinet members, including the deputy prime minister of economics, head of policy in the presidential office, or again as a senior economic adviser to the president. But I finally came to Korea Development Bank, and I’m very happy right now.

How is KDB shaping economic growth in Korea?

This will be a small economics lesson. KDB has played an important role in Korea since the country’s very best economic growth during 1970s and 80s.

During that time, almost all of the national savings were stored at KDB, and then KDB allocated these monies to strategically chosen industries such as car and ship building, as well as electronics, including semiconductors. KDB was the main source of finance to all of the important Korean industries. From 1980 to 1990, globalization was widespread all over the world, so KDB’s role becomes very limited because the previous policy—industrial policy—was no longer a strong tool because many nations opened their borders.

However, as the tensions between U.S. and China increase, industrial policy again becomes more important in most countries, including Korea. So, KDB’s role is becoming more important than ever.

Previously, many people thought that economics and national security were separate. But now they are integrated, so that’s what we call economic security, and in the era of economic security, I think that commercial technology is national security.

I think that for the Korea’s national security and economic prosperity, we should invest and put more money on leading-edge technologies such as semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles, bio products, and nuclear power. I would like to see more resources placed on developing and leading technology so that Korea becomes the worldwide technological power.

What is KDB’s involvement in business development at various scales?

We are all aspects of all of the stages of enterprises. We invest in startups, and we also provide funds to medium-sized ventures. We also invest in worldwide groups such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK, LG—they are all our customers.

You’ve maintained ties with the university over the years. You’re serving as president of the alumni chapter. What makes you want to keep that close connection?

I have very good memories of the University of Wisconsin, and I am thankful to the university for giving me an education, scholarships, housing, and health insurance. In my mind, I have to repay what I received from the University of Wisconsin.

Additionally, since there are so many alumni in Korea, if we make networks then we as a group will be able to provide support and help to the university and future generations.