Kim Seong-tae, the former chairman of underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group, allegedly said he gave North Korea $3 million in 2019 to facilitate then-Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung's visit to the North. Lee is the leader of the majority opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
Previously, Kim told prosecutors that he handed a total of more than $5 million to North Korea to obtain economic cooperation rights involving the North. However, grilled by prosecutors recently over the group's additional remittance of $3 million, Kim reportedly disclosed that it was "an expense for Lee's visit to North Korea."
This is a new circumstance that raises suspicions about the cozy relationship between Lee and Kim in connection with the illegal remittance of money to North Korea.
Kim also disclosed that in China he spoke to Lee on the phone of then Gyeonggi Vice Gov. for Peace Lee Hwa-young, who handed it over to him in the middle of a conversation with Lee. Kim said he heard Lee say "thank you" to him on the phone.
Previously Kim said he did not know Lee and Lee said he did not know Kim. Kim seems determined to open his mouth. His statement to prosecutors is quite specific.
Kim reportedly said that $5 million he sent to North Korea was the cost of a Gyeonggi project to improve North Korea's smart farms, paid by Ssangbangwool on behalf of the province, and that $3 million was the money to facilitate Lee's visit to North Korea. Kim even disclosed that the name of a North Korean official with whom he met was Ri Ho-nam.
There is more than a little circumstantial evidence that fits with Kim's statement.
In October 2018, then Vice Gov. Lee visited North Korea twice and announced that the province agreed with the North on six inter-Korean exchange projects including smart farm support and that it was also pushing then Gov. Lee’s North Korea visit.
In November that year, a North Korean delegation including Ri Jong-hyok, vice chairman of North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, attended an inter-Korean exchange event held by the province in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.
Ssangbangwool paid hundreds of millions of won in expenses of the event, which was held twice, in November 2018 and in July 2019.
In January 2019 in China, the North Korean committee held a ceremony for an economic cooperation agreement with Ssangbangwool. In the ceremony, Kim is said to have spoken to Lee on Vice Gov. Lee's phone. Kim allegedly told prosecutors that he thought Lee thanked him because Ssangbangwool promised to pay for smart farm support on behalf of the province.
In May 2019, then Gov. Lee sent a letter to Kim Yong-chol, chairman of the North Korean committee, asking the committee to invite him to North Korea.
Two months later, in July, Ssangbangwool's Kim reportedly met Ri Ho-nam of the North Korean Ministry of State Security during the second inter-Korean exchange event held in Manila, the Philippines. Kim asked for Ri's cooperation over Lee’s plan to visit North Korea. Afterwards, an additional $3 million was sent to the North as Ri demanded.
Kim is said to have told prosecutors to the effect that former Vice Gov. Lee said then Gov. Lee was aware of all his dealings with North Korea. This means Lee knew about the illegal remittance of dollars to North Korea.
As expected, Lee flatly rejected Kim's allegations, dismissing them as a new work of fiction released by the prosecution. But this is not an issue that can be evaded with such a vague dismissal. He must present convincing evidence and facts to demonstrate his claims.
Ssangbangwool employees admitted smuggling out millions of dollars in cash to China, apparently to be handed over to North Korea. Kim confessed giving money to the North. It is hard to believe that the vice governor pushed the province's North Korea project and the governor's North Korea visit on his own judgment.
Illegal remittance to North Korea is a serious allegation on an entirely different level to the other allegations involving Lee, such as the Daejang-dong land development and Seongnam football club bribery scandals. The prosecution must find out the whole picture and take stern legal action against all of those found accountable.