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Envoy to Japan is named in growing probe into bribery

Prosecutors question politicians from parties after Park Yeon-cha opens up   PLAY AUDIO

Mar 26,2009
The ever-growing list of politicians accused of receiving bribes from Taekwang Industrial’s Chairman Park Yeon-cha now includes Kwon Chul-hyeon, Korea’s ambassador to Japan, a prosecution source told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“We suspect that Ambassador Kwon had also received hundreds of million of won from Park,” a prosecution source said. “It is, however, possible that the statute of limitations has expired in the case.” Under current law, the statute of limitation for violating the political funding law is five years.

Kwon denied that he had received money from Park.

“In the late 1990s, Park visited me once during a fund-raising event. In 2004, I visited his factory in Vietnam when I visited the country accompanying Kim Won-ki, then the National Assembly speaker,” Kwon told the JoongAng Ilbo. “There was no more contact with him. I have not received his money.”

“It is too early to say whether we will question Kwon or take any legal action against him,” the source said. “A significant number of former and incumbent Grand National Party lawmakers have received money from Park, but in many cases the statute of limitation has expired.”

The 62-year-old ambassador hails from South Gyeongsang, the base of Park’s business. Kwon began his political career in 1996 by winning a legislative election as a New Korea Party lawmaker representing Busan. He served three terms. The New Korea Party was the predecessor of the GNP.

After his defeat in last year’s legislative elections, President Lee Myung-bak appointed him as Korea’s ambassador to Japan. Inside the GNP, Kwon is known to be a member of the pro-Lee faction.

Two or three incumbent lawmakers will face the prosecution’s questioning this week about allegations they received money from Park.

“We are discussing schedules with the lawmakers,” Hong Man-pyo, a senior prosecutor at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office in charge of the investigation, said yesterday. “We plan to summon two or three before this weekend.”

Hong refused to name those to be questioned, but said, “The probe is being delayed because the lawmakers are pushing the dates back.”

Meanwhile, warrant hearings took place yesterday for two former Roh Moo-hyun aides.

Chang In-tae, former home affairs minister in the Roh administration, admitted to having received 800 million won ($586,081) in bribes from Park. The warrant hearing to further detain Chang for the probe took place without his presence as he had pleaded guilty to the charges.

According to prosecutors, Chang is accused of receiving bribes from Park twice when he ran for governor of South Gyeongsang in the 2004 by-elections as an Uri Party candidate. Prosecutors said Park decided to provide the money after Roh Geon-pyeong, President Roh’s older brother, told him “to help Chang big time.”

A warrant hearing was also held for Park Jung-gyu, a former civil affairs senior secretary for the Roh Blue House. A source from the investigation team said Park allegedly received 100 million won worth of gift certificates from the Taekwang chairman.

“Shortly after the Roh administration’s launch, Chairman Park planned to leave for Vietnam with Roh Geon-pyeong,” the source said. “But the Blue House civil affairs office learned about the plan and stopped the trip. So, Taekwang Chairman Park provided the bribes to Park Jung-gyu to cut him some slack.”

What started as a tax probe on Taekwang Industrial last summer has grown into a high-profile influence-peddling scandal involving senior officials of Korea’s past and current administrations and politicians of both ruling and opposition parties.

At the end of last July, about 10 tax investigators raided the offices of Chairman Park and his secretaries. Confidential documents and account books were seized, and allegations about a massive network of bribery emerged in addition to the tax evasion charges.

A female secretary for Chairman Park detailed his meetings, telephone conversations and secret deals with some of the country’s most influential men. An IOU recording a loan of 1.5 billion won from Park to former President Roh was also uncovered at the time.

The National Tax Service handed over the case to prosecutors on Nov. 25, asking that Park be indicted for tax evasion. Only 17 days later, Park was taken into the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office and has remained in its custody. Additional charges of insider trading were added, but Park denied that he had bribed politicians and top officials. In February of this year, a second round of the probe began as members of the investigation team were replaced. As prosecutors presented Park with evidence and threatened to prosecute his children, the businessman decided it was time to talk, sources said.

As the case develops, the allegations appear to point to higher-ups in the Roh and Lee administrations. Prosecutors are trying to find out who was contacted by Choo Boo-kil, a former Lee aide, to try to halt the tax probe on Park’s company.



By Kim Seung-hyun, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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