Ban downplays alleged link to late businessman

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Ban downplays alleged link to late businessman

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Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has denied media reports stating that he had an amicable relationship with a late construction tycoon who claimed to have provided money to politicians for years, attempting to distance himself from a snowballing political scandal in his home country.

In an interview on Thursday with Yonhap News Agency shortly after meeting with U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Ban denied alleged ties to Sung Wan-jong.

Shortly before his death, Sung, the former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises and a former lawmaker, said that he had put money into the pockets of top politicians and government officials for years, and also claimed to be one of Ban’s patrons.

“This scandal has nothing to do with me,” Ban told Yonhap News. “I saw him at a few public events, but there was no special relationship.”

“I have no interest in Korean politics, and I don’t have time to pay attention to it,” Ban added. “I have made this position clear in the past, and I am baffled to be facing this situation again.”

Despite Ban’s continued denials that he will begin a political career in Korea after his tenure at the United Nations is complete, speculations have lingered at home that he is being groomed by opposition lawmakers to run in the 2017 presidential race.

His tenure as the UN secretary-general will end at the end of 2016, just one year before the election. He was also ranked as the most favored presidential candidate in polls last year.

In an interview with the Kyung-hyang Shinmun just hours before he was found hanged from a tree branch on Mount Bukhan, Sung claimed that Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo had ordered the prosecution to go after him because of his relationship with Ban. Sung additionally claimed that Lee, who has presidential ambitions, wanted to get back at him for his patronage to the UN secretary-general.

“That is a serious misunderstanding,” Lee said on Thursday, denying the accusation.

In the past, Sung did not hesitate to brag about his ties with Ban. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at the end of last year, Sung said he had a “close and care-free relationship” with Ban.

“Ban served as the vice foreign minister in the Kim Dae-jung administration, but he was not promoted,” Sung said. “That’s when I built the [Chungcheong] Forum with Ban.”

The Chungcheong Forum, which Sung established, is a fraternity of politicians and government officials from North and South Chungcheong. Ban is a founding member and attended the forum’s gatherings whenever he visited Korea as UN secretary-general.

Sung’s diaries, obtained by the JoongAng Ilbo after his death, also showed that the late tycoon had met with Ban three times over recent years. The diaries stated that they met on Oct. 30, 2012, and Aug. 26 and 27, 2013. During those periods, Ban was in Korea.

Rep. Park Jie-won, a member of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said Thursday that he was approached by those supporting Ban as a presidential candidate to form an alliance.

“They said Ban - who is from Chungcheong - can win the presidency if the Jeolla politicians support him,” Park said. “Sung asked me to meet, but I refused because the opposition party candidates would be crushed if Ban eventually decides not to run despite the alliance.”

“It is an open secret in the Chung-cheong region that Sung was one of Ban’s patrons,” added Lee Sang-min, an NPAD lawmaker who represents Yuseong District in Daejeon.

Ban’s younger brother, Ki-sang, also worked as an adviser at Sung’s company, Keangnam Enterprises, from September 2008 until last month.

However, Ban Ki-sang told the JoongAng Ilbo that he was recruited by Sung to work for the company because of his professional experience in overseas finance and their ties to the Chungcheong region.

He also denied that Sung had a special relationship with the UN secretary-general.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr ]

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