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[Newsmaker] Is Korea’s most-wanted conman really dead?

The purported death of Cho Hee-pal, the mastermind behind South Korea’s largest-ever fraud case, returned to the spotlight as his close aide was arrested in China last week, with fresh testimonies suggesting he is actually still alive.

Cho is one of the most-wanted conmen in South Korea, having allegedly scammed up to 50,000 people out of an estimated 4 trillion won ($3.5 billion) in a pyramid marketing scheme.

Cho Hee-pal (Yonhap)
Cho Hee-pal (Yonhap)

The 58-year-old established a medical equipment supply company and ran 10 leasing branches to lure potential investors with false promises of high returns on their capital between 2004 and 2008.

Amid the burgeoning probe into the pyramid scam, Cho and his aides fled to China in 2008. In 2012, the South Korean police announced that he had died of a heart attack while being taken to a hospital from a hotel in Qingdao, China.

But doubts have lingered over his death, with victims claiming that Cho faked his own death to dodge the police probe and public scrutiny.

Fresh testimony, revealed by a local media outlet Tuesday, raised the possibility that his death was fabricated. A 47-year-old man claiming to have been a key aide to Cho said that he had talked to him over the phone several times, the last time being in late 2013.

The man, surnamed Choi, served an eight-month jail term on charges of hiding Cho, but moved to China with the fugitive.

According to his testimony, Cho underwent plastic surgery to change his face upon arriving in China. He also allegedly tried to remove his fingerprints, though that was unsuccessful. Cho also reportedly has several girlfriends in Korea delivering money for him to live in China. He allegedly carries a handgun in his pocket at all times and spends most of his time playing golf and drinking alcohol.

Cho is claimed to have lived in Yantai, just one and a half hour’s flight from Incheon, disguised as 53-year-old Korean-Chinese Cho Young-bok, or Cao Yongfu, since 2008.

His death was backed by several pieces of evidence, such as a death certificate issued by Chinese authorities, medical records written by Chinese doctors and video footage of his funeral service in China.

But victims argued that Cho might have bribed Chinese government officials to obtain falsified documents to prove his death. They also questioned the videotape, as it is rare to record funerals in Korea.

There have also been speculations that the police hastily announced Cho’s death without confirming the facts at the time to defend senior prosecutors and police officers involved in the fraud case.

So far, six senior police officials and prosecutors were convicted of accepting kickbacks from Cho in return for leniency in the investigations into his fraud scheme.

With Kang’s return, the prosecution is expected to speed up the probe into whether Cho is still alive, his hidden assets and alleged big-scale collusion between investigators and Cho.

Kang Tae-yong, Cho’s No. 2 man in the pyramid scheme, was apprehended by the Chinese police at his residence in Jinangsu Province on Saturday, seven years after he escaped to China. He allegedly took charge of the company’s finances and lobbying investigators.

Kang is expected to be extradited to Korea as early as this weekend. As the suspect might keep mum about Cho, the prosecution plans to focus on tracing Cho’s false bank accounts and flow of his assets. It has already found 120 billion won under Cho’s false bank accounts.

By Ock Hyun-ju (