Uzbek frauds in Korea spark diplomatic conflict

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Uzbek frauds in Korea spark diplomatic conflict

The Uzbek government has requested the extradition of an ethnic Korean Uzbek, Vladimir Choi, 46, who is a primary suspect in a big fraud case in the country.

Korea’s Justice Ministry rejected the request, it was confirmed recently, because Choi has been indicted by Korea’s prosecutors for a $5.2 million fraud here in Korea. Choi’s dueling fraud charges are becoming a diplomatic issue between the countries, which signed a criminal extradition treaty in 2003.

Choi allegedly swindled 6.1 billion won ($5.2 million) from Uzbekistans who came to Korea as industrial trainees from May 2004 to December 2006. He pretended to be the Korean representative of AFLMA, which is an Uzbek company that selects Uzbek workers to come to Korea. He promised the trainees he would transmit money to Uzbekistan on their behalf. The local investigation into Choi began after the Uzbek government sent information on the suspect to Korean law enforcement authorities.

Choi’s alleged fraud has become a hot issue in Uzbekistan. The cheated trainees demonstrated at the head office of AFLMA in 2007 and in a follow-up investigation, the Uzbek government discovered the involvement of the Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, and fired him. They also arrested the president of AFLMA.

Korean investigators have only identified 6.1 billion won in stolen funds. But the trainees say Choi got 32.5 billion won from them. There are also records of Choi transferring 4 billion won to accounts in Hong Kong.

According to investigators, Choi frequently said he was close to many powerful figures in Uzbekistan. He told friends that he sent gifts to those figures. During the investigation, Choi said, “I will be killed if I go back to Uzbekistan because I know too much.”

Choi is a descendant of Koreans who fled to Russia and were exiled to central Asia during the Stalinist period. Choi became a Korean citizen in May 2008, and obtained a Korean name and a resident registration number. But his citizenship was canceled because he did not forfeit his Uzbek nationality. Choi is stateless. He asked for the recovery of his Korean citizenship in May. Uzbek Embassy officials said they still need to confirm whether Choi actually forfeited his Uzbek nationality.

By Lee Chul-jae, Hong Hye-jin []
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