The Korea Herald


Ex-President Lee cornered as key aides turn their backs

By Kim So-hyun

Published : March 14, 2018 - 17:21

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The prosecution’s investigation into corruption allegations involving former President Lee Myung-bak took a major turn in the past two months, as his close associates began to speak out.

While investigating former National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon, prosecutors last year found that money from the NIS’ audit-free account was delivered to Cheong Wa Dae officials during the Lee administration.

Kim Hee-joong, who served as Lee’s presidential secretary for private affairs, told prosecutors in January that he handed over $100,000 of the NIS’ funds to then-first lady Kim Yoon-ok through her assistant ahead of Lee’s visit to the US in October 2011.

Kim Hee-joong’s statement marked a breakthrough in the investigation, as it was evidence that the NIS’ funds went to Lee. Kim Paik-joon, former presidential secretary for administrative affairs to Lee, had been denying accusations that he received some 400 million won ($376,000) from the NIS.

Lee Myung-bak, left, and Kim Hee-joong (Yonhap) Lee Myung-bak, left, and Kim Hee-joong (Yonhap)

Kim Hee-joong apparently held a grudge against Lee. He was jailed for a year and three months after being indicted in 2012 for accepting 180 million won in bribes from a local savings bank. He expected a special pardon by the president at the end of his term, but it did not happen.

In September 2013, just a month before Kim’s release, his wife killed herself after struggling financially. Kim’s colleagues from the presidential office did not come to the funeral and Lee did not send a wreath, as would have been customary

Kim had a hard time finding a job upon his release from jail, and ended up working at a lawyer’s office in Seoul. As the investigation into NIS funds expanded early this year, a lawyer tipped off the prosecution about what he heard from Kim.

Kim then went to the prosecution on his own accord to make the incriminating statement against Lee.

As for the probe into DAS, an auto parts manufacturer owned by Lee’s brother, prosecutors did not expect to make much progress as the case had already been investigated in 2008 and all of the people involved had denied that the company was related to the former president.

The case was reopened in October last year after a local businessman filed a complaint with the prosecution, accusing Lee and a former consul general in Los Angeles of abusing their power to help DAS recoup a lost investment before other investors.

In December, a civic organization and a liberal lawyers’ group filed a complaint against the “unknown real owner” of DAS and the independent counsel who investigated the case in 2008 and cleared Lee of the charges that he ran a slush fund through DAS. They accused Lee of embezzlement, concealment of criminal proceeds and tax evasion.

Kim Sung-woo, a former chief executive of DAS, who had said in 2008 that the company had nothing to do with Lee, presented himself to the prosecution in January and said all of his statements at the time were false. 

Kim, who has known Lee for decades since when they worked together at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, told prosecutors that DAS was established under Lee’s instruction in 1987. Kim also confessed that the former president received reports about the company’s operation.

Shortly after the confessions by Kim Hee-joong and Kim Sung-woo, Kim Paik-joon, who was arrested, admitted that he received the NIS funds under Lee’s orders.

Sometimes known as Lee’s “butler,” Kim Paik-joon also tipped off the prosecution that there was evidence of Samsung’s alleged bribery inside a building owned by Lee’s Cheonggye Foundation. Samsung Electronics allegedly paid $5 million in litigation fees for DAS between 2007 and 2009, which the prosecution sees as kickbacks to the former president. In the building, the prosecution found the Samsung-related documents as well as a hard disk containing financial records of DAS.

By Kim So-hyun (