Kim’s overseas trip raises questions about probe

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Kim’s overseas trip raises questions about probe

Kim Ki-choon, the former presidential chief of staff accused of having received money from a construction tycoon who committed suicide this month, left the country over the weekend with his wife, raising questions about the seriousness with which he is being probed.

Kim, who served as the chief of staff of the Park Geun-hye Blue House from August 2013 till February 2015 after a career as a prosecutor-general and justice minister, reportedly left the country on Sunday. He and his wife were seen aboard ANA Flight 864 that left Gimpo International Airport for Haneda Airport in Tokyo at 12:35 p.m.

He and his wife returned to Korea Monday evening but he didn’t answer questions from reporters.

The trip of Kim came as the prosecutors are supposed to be investigating a payoff scandal involving the inner circle of President Park Geun-hye and possibly many more. Sung Wan-jong, a construction company head turned legislator, claimed shortly before his suicide earlier this month that he had paid off top politicians including Kim for years.

When he was found hanged from a tree branch on Mount Bukhan by a necktie, Sung had a list of eight politicians in his trouser pocket. Some had money amounts and dates next to their names.

“Of the eight people on the alleged graft list of Sung Wan-jong, one of them left the country and his mobile phone was subscribed to an overseas roaming service,” Rep. Park Jie-won of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy said Monday without using Kim’s name. He made the remarks during a hearing at the National Assembly with Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-an.

“From another passenger of the plane, I received a tip that the couple were aboard,” Park said. “The Justice Ministry must confirm who left the country and how that travel was possible.”

The JoongAng Ilbo called Kim’s mobile phone around 11:30 a.m. Monday, and a message from a telecommunication provider said his phone is currently subscribed to an overseas roaming service and an international call rate would be charged. Kim, however, did not answer.

Sung, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises and also a former lawmaker, was found dead in an apparent suicide on April 9. A list of eight people including Kim, another former presidential chief of staff Huh Tae-yeol as well as the current chief of staff Lee Byung-kee and Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was found in Sung’s trouser pocket.

Sung also told the Kyunghyang Shinmun just hours before his death that he gave $100,000 to Kim in 2006 before he accompanied Park on to a trip to Europe. At the time, Park was chairwoman of the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the Saenuri Party.

Kim has denied that he had received money from Sung. Although he initially said he had not met with Sung after he was appointed as presidential chief of staff, he later changed the account and admitted having met Sung on Nov. 6, 2013, after the JoongAng Ilbo got access to some of Sung’s diaries, which noted a dinner between the two men and other lawmakers.

Speculation quickly arose that prosecutors were going easy on Kim, who served as the prosecutor-general from 1988 till 1990 and justice minister from 1991 till 1992.

Justice Minister Hwang refused to confirm Kim’s departure for Japan on Monday at the National Assembly hearing. “Travel bans are private information, so we cannot share it,” Hwang said. “But I assure you that we will take precise measures when they are needed.”

Another official at the Ministry of Justice said no travel ban was issued for Kim because the prosecution did not make a request.

The team investigating the scandal said it was inappropriate for them to comment on why Kim was not banned from leaving the country.

“Even for someone who has no way to run away, a travel ban is a routine measure,” a source from the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office said. “The team must have considered various circumstances, but it is still questionable.”

“A travel ban is a prerequisite even for a preliminary investigation although specific charges were not fixed,” said a senior prosecutor from the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. “The prosecution is sure to face criticism.”

BY SER MYO-JA, KIM BAEK-KI [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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