PM-designate’s accusers won’t be testifying

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PM-designate’s accusers won’t be testifying

The opposition wants to give Prime Minister-designate Kim Tae-ho a rough ride at next week’s confirmation hearings at the National Assembly. But the two key witnesses they want to testify about his link to a major corruption scandal last year are unlikely to show up. Kim will face lawmakers on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The National Assembly’s confirmation hearings and approval are necessary steps for the former South Gyeongsang governor to become the head of President Lee Myung-bak’s cabinet.

Ruling and opposition parties alike have agreed to summon Park Yeon-cha, a Busan-based businessman convicted of operating a massive political payoff network, and Kwak Hyeon-gyu, 61, a Korean restaurant owner from New York City who was suspected of being Park’s bagman. The Democratic Party wanted the two to confirm allegations that Kim received bribes from Park, an accusation that the Ministry of Justice dismissed for lack of evidence last year.

Kim, who served as South Gyeongsang governor from 2004 until early this year, was accused of receiving tens of thousands of dollars from Park in April 2007, and the prosecution suspected the bribes were delivered at Kwak’s restaurant in New York City.

During the prosecution’s investigation last year, Kwak told investigators that he had received money from Park and asked a waitress at his restaurant to give the money to Kim. The waitress, however, couldn’t be found and, without her evidence, prosecutors didn’t indict Kim. (None of the cases that involved Kwak as a middleman for Park in the bribing scandal led to convictions.)

Now it’s Kwak who has vanished. Kwak, who opened another restaurant at a resort in Yongin, Gyeonggi, in June last year, was last seen there Aug. 7, a day before Lee reshuffled his cabinet and announced Kim’s new job as prime minister.

“About 10 days ago, Kwak told me that he would go to the United States, and I haven’t seen him since then,” another restaurateur in Yongin said, adding that it is rare for Kwak to disappear from his restaurant for such a long period of time.

Kwak also changed his mobile phone number recently.

A staffer at another Korean restaurant in the neighborhood, which Kwak reportedly frequented, said Kwak visited the place for the last time on the evening of Aug. 7. He said Kwak used to visit the restaurant with Park.

As for Park’s testimony, that’s also unlikely to happen.

Park was convicted of corruption and the Seoul High Court sentenced him to serve two years and six months in prison and pay a 30 billion won ($25.5 million) fine.

He served the start of his prison term at the Seoul Detention Center, but was moved to the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul in November to undergo a heart operation and spinal surgery.

Since Park was let out because of his health conditions, it remains unclear whether he will be able to take the witness stand.

A Supreme Court appeal is still ongoing on Park’s case, and he has recently asked the top court to allow him to transfer to the Gimhae Joongang Medical Center in his hometown.

Senior prosecutors, including Roh Hwan-gyun, the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, were also summoned to testify at the confirmation hearing, but they are unlikely to be able to speak about an ongoing case, a prosecution official said. Lee In-kyu, the former prosecutor who headed the Park scandal probe, however, said he will testify. After former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide last year during a probe into accusations that Park had bribed Roh’s family and aides, Lee stepped down as head of the central investigation unit of the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office and has since been practicing as a lawyer.

“I will give answers as they are,” Lee said. “I will never lie.”

Meanwhile, a key witness in the confirmation hearings for Lee Jae-oh - named minister without portfolio to handle special tasks, including political affairs - will also be a no-show.

Lawmakers summoned Nam Sang-tae, president of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Maritime Engineering, to answer questions about allegations that he had bribed Lee to be reappointed head of the company last year.

But Nam informed the National Assembly through his company that he has a business trip to Europe already scheduled from Friday until later next week and won’t be able to attend.

By Choi Sun-wook, Ser Myo-ja []
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