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[Editorial] Thorough probe needed

Ex-Ssangbangwool chairman arrested in Thailand agrees to come home; suspicions involve opposition leader

Jan. 13, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Kim Seong-tae, the fugitive former chairman of Ssangbangwool Group, was arrested in Thailand on Tuesday, about eight months after fleeing abroad to avoid investigations into allegations of corruption.

He was reportedly involved in organized crime in North Jeolla Province. His past convictions include opening and running illegal gambling dens, selling illegal casino programs and unregistered money lending.

He apparently turned himself into a legitimate businessman in 2010, when he took over the cash-strapped corporation, but received a suspended jail sentence on charges of share price manipulation in the process of acquiring the group.

Under the Moon Jae-in administration, he is said to have sought to expand the group by doing business with North Korea.

In May 2019, when Lee Jae-myung, currently leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, was governor of Gyeonggi Province, Kim obtained business licenses from North Korea in six areas including the exploitation of mineral resources. In doing so, he met North Korean officials in China with the help of Lee Hwa-young, who was then the Gyeonggi Province vice governor for peace, and An Boo-soo, president of the Seoul-based Asia Pacific Peace Exchange Association.

Kim ordered dozens of Ssangbangwool employees to smuggle a total of $6.4 million to China in 2018 and 2019, according to prosecutors. The employees are thought to have acted as cash couriers by flying to Shenyang without declaring the money to customs, with US bills concealed inside books, cosmetic cases and personal belongings.

Kim is suspected of giving part of the money to North Korea. The prosecution indicted An, president of the association, on suspicion of delivering $500,000 to two officials of the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee under Kim's direction.

Prosecutors suspect the money was given in return for mining rights and other business licenses.

Kim is also said to have engaged in Gyeonggi Province‘s North Korea projects. He donated hundreds of million won to an inter-Korean exchange event held by the province jointly with the association twice in 2018 and 2019 under the leadership of Vice Gov. Lee Hwa-young. At that time, the province publicized the event as Gov. Lee's achievement.

The most attention-grabbing allegation involving Kim and Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung is that Ssangbangwool is suspected of paying fees to a lawyer who was defending Lee in a trial to appeal a conviction for election law violations.

A Ssangbangwool affiliate gave the lawyer 2.3 billion won ($1.85 million) in cash and Ssangbangwool convertible bonds. A group of Moon supporters alleged that the cash and convertible bonds given to the lawyer were actually his attorney fees for Lee, though Lee said he had spent 250 million won to pay scores of lawyers. The lawyer also headed the legal support group for Lee Jae-myung‘s 2022 presidential campaign. Investigations began at the group’s request, but came to a standstill after Kim fled the country.

Few would believe Democratic Party leader Lee if he claims he did not know about these allegations involving Ssangbangwool. But he has not officially provided an answer to the suspicions yet. All he has said so far in connection with the allegations is: “My only connection with Ssangbangwool is that I bought underwear from the brand.”

Kim flew to Singapore after secret information was leaked to him by an investigator that the prosecution would raid Ssangbangwool soon. He then moved to Thailand, where he lived in hiding for nearly eight months before being arrested. The investigator was arrested. If Kim is innocent, he would have no reason to hide.

Kim reportedly gave up filing a suit against repatriation and will return home on Friday. He is said to have admitted staying illegally in Thailand and expressed his intent of giving up the suit to a Ssangbangwool official before entering a Thai court on Thursday. The Korean government has already invalidated his passport.

The prosecution must uncover the truth behind allegations involving not only Ssangbangwool and Lee Jae-myung, but also Kim's suspected criminal acts.