Kim Seong-tae, the fugitive former chairman of underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group, arrived in South Korea on Tuesday morning after he was arrested in Bangkok last week, roughly eight months after fleeing abroad.
Kim is facing multiple charges, including a charge involving main opposition Democratic Party of Korea's leader Lee Jae-myung. Immediately after his arrival, Kim was taken to the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office in Gyeonggi Province.
Kim denied a link with the main opposition leader, when asked if he had come in contact with Lee or any of Lee’s aides as he arrived at Incheon International Airport.
“I don’t know (him),” Kim replied briefly to the question.
Kim also denied allegations that he had paid for Lee’s attorney expenses by proxy and dismissed rumors that he had sought political asylum.
“I’m sorry for causing concern to the people,” Kim said, adding he is sorry for “hurting the people working hard for the company.”
Despite denials, all eyes are on whether Kim's links to the political opponent of President Yoon Suk Yeol would be revealed amid widening probe, as Lee is facing charges of orchestrating bribe to a third party and being involved in a land corruption scandal.
Kim is facing allegations that Ssangbangwool paid fees to a lawyer defending Lee during an election law violation trial in 2018. Lee was acquitted of the violation. The lawyer allegedly had received 300 million won ($241,000) from the group during the trial process. Kim is also suspected of manipulating the stock market partly to make up for the payment.
In a recent interview with public broadcaster KBS, Kim said that he had never met the opposition leader and has no reason to meet him. He added that speculations about his relationship with Lee ruined his life.
Lee also denied that he had met Kim.
However, prosecutors on Tuesday confirmed the testimony of a senior executive of Ssangbangwool during Lee Hwa-young’s trial -- the then-Gyeonggi Province vice governor for peace who served as an outside director to the company -- that the opposition leader and Kim had a "close relationship."
On Monday, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon downplayed Kim’s media interview, saying it was common in the past for those who fled abroad to choose a media outlet to take a stand before entering the country. Han added that the interview “sends a signal to those involved in the case to coordinate the story.”
Meanwhile, Kim is also targeted by the prosecution for ordering dozens of Ssangbangwool employees to smuggle some $6.4 million to China in 2018 and 2019. Under the law, foreign currency over $10,000 must be declared to customs when traveling overseas.
According to prosecutors, the Ssangbangwool employees entered Shenyang without declaring their monetary instruments to customs and hid their cash inside books and cosmetic cases.
Kim is also suspected of transferring part of the money to North Korea in exchange for mining and other business rights.
Under the previous Moon Jae-in administration, the company reportedly clinched a deal on economic cooperation projects with the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee and the North Korean National Economic Cooperation Federation in Shenyang, China.
During Lee’s tenure as governor of Gyeonggi Province, Kim acquired business rights for minerals from the North, including rare earth elements, in May 2019 and met North Korean officials in China through the former vice governor of Gyeonggi Province.
In September, the then-vice governor was arrested on charges of accepting bribes from Ssangbangwool in return for business favors.
The prosecution also alleged that the former chairman gifted the North Korean leader a Hermes saddle for a horse in 2019 in return for business agreements with the North.
Kim stepped down as the group’s chairman in 2021, but he reportedly remained in control of big decisions in the company.
In the same year, Kim fled the country following a series of high-profile corruption investigations. He flew to Singapore in May 2022 before the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office issued an arrest warrant for him and later fled to Thailand in July.
The ex-chairman arrived in Korea along with his relative Yang Seon-gil, the current chairman and CEO of SBW Group. The two landed at Incheon International Airport at around 8:20 a.m. from Bangkok through Asiana Airlines.
The prosecution is to demand a warrant by the court against Kim by no later than Wednesday.