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South Korea's former first lady faces possible probe over bribery allegations

Ex-President Lee Myung-bak’s wife Kim Yoon-ok received a bribe from former Woori Financial CEO Lee Pal-seung during her husband’s term in office, Kim’s son-in-law reportedly told prosecutors in a recent questioning session.

Kim’s son-in-law, Lee Sang-joo, a senior executive at Samsung Electronics, told prosecutors he received 1.45 billion won ($1.36 million) from the former Woori chief and passed on part of the money to Kim. The money was given sometime during Lee Myung-bak’s term as president, from 2008-2013, prosecutors said.

The latest revelation may result in the 70-year-old former first lady being investigated, as there are a number of other corruption allegations against her. Prosecutors also grilled her husband overnight all day Wednesday concerning some 20 criminal allegations against him.
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak`s wife Kim Yoon-ok, who has been accused of several corruption offences. (Yonhap)
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak`s wife Kim Yoon-ok, who has been accused of several corruption offences. (Yonhap)

Along with his wife, Lee is also alleged to have received 2.25 billion won ($2.1 million) from the former Woori chief in return for giving him the top job at the financial institution, which was a state-run lender at the time.

Aside from the bribery allegation involving her son-in-law and former Woori Financial CEO, the former first lady has been accused of committing a number of illicit actions while her husband was in office.

She was recently alleged to have illicitly spent millions of dollars while engaged in a government-funded project to promote Korean cuisine.

In 2011 alone, the state-run Korean Food Promotion Institute, which was headed by Kim at the time, spent 1.3 billion won on “parties” that featured Korean cuisine held at multiple cities overseas, including Paris, Beijing, Madrid and New York.

A single guest invited to such parties was reportedly treated to a meal worth 2.7 million won ($2,538), and a “Korean tea and sweets experience” worth 4.7 million won ($4,418).

In January, Park Hong-geun, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s senior deputy floor leader, alleged the former first lady spent some $100,000 from the National Intelligence Service on purchasing designer goods for personal use during her US visit in 2011.

Park made the allegations citing Kim Hee-joong, who served as ex-President Lee’s presidential secretary for private affairs.

Earlier this year, a local media outlet reported that investigators were looking into an allegation that Kim received a designer bag filled with bribe money from a New York-based Anglican priest in 2007. The priest is reported to be either Korean-American or a Korean national.

It was a New York-based businessman -- also either a Korean national or Korean-American -- who delivered the gift on the priest’s behalf. The news report said the bag alone cost about 20 million won, and the money inside could have totaled millions of dollars.

The bribe was reportedly given to her before the presidential election that year, which Kim’s husband won.

Meanwhile, Chung Doo-un, an estranged aide to the former president, recently disclosed that the former first lady made other “mistakes of great magnitude” in 2007 that “could have cost her husband the election.”

Chung said he had to pay out of his own pocket to those who knew of her “mistakes” at the time, promising in writing to give them “full support of any kind” should Lee win the election. He did not disclose details of Kim’s acts that cost him his own money.

A graduate of Ewha Womans University‘s health education and management program, Kim married Lee in 1970. The couple has a son and three daughters.

Two of their three daughters, Joo-yeon  and Seung-yeon, studied music at the Juilliard School in the US, while one of them, Soo-yeon, studied fine art at Ewha Womans University. All of them are currently reported to be housewives in their 40s with young children.

Their son, Si-hyung, 40, was grilled by prosecutors last month over allegations of creating slush fund surrounding an auto parts company linked to his father.

Kim's youngest daughter, Soo-yeon, is married to Jo Hyeon-beom, 46,  president of Hankook Tire, among the largest tire companies in the world. Jo’s father is Hankook Tire Chairman Jo Yang-rae.

By Claire Lee (

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