Choi scandal stains entire family

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Choi scandal stains entire family

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A building in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, owned since 1985 by Choi Soon-deuk (Choi Soon-sil’s sister) and her husband, Jang Seok-chil, now costs over 29 billion won (25.4 million dollars). [KIM CHOON-SIK]

The scandal involving President Park Geun-hye’s longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, is starting to spill over to her family as it appears Choi and her two sisters have accumulated at least 300 billion won ($263 million) through real estate deals.

The JoongAng Ilbo tracked down certified copies of their real estate contracts and corporate registration forms and found that Choi Soon-sil, 60, had three buildings from 2002 to 2015 in Gangnam District’s Yeoksam-dong and Sinsa-dong, both in southern Seoul, and Hanam, in Gyeonggi. She sold all three for 16.7 billion won total.

Her older sister, Choi Soon-deuk, 64, owns a building in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, which is worth 29 billion won. Choi Soon-deuk and her husband put it up as collateral and borrowed money from a bank 13 times, including 5 billion won from KB Kookmin Bank. The high-end villa they are currently using as their home in Dogok-dong, southern Seoul, which is worth 3.5 billion won, is currently on sale. The couple’s three houses and hotel in Germany are estimated to cost over 20 billion won total.

Choi Soon-sil’s younger sister, Choi Soon-cheon, 58, owns a building worth over 20 billion won in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, and put it up as collateral to borrow money from a bank 11 times. Her current loan is estimated to hover at around 5.4 billion won. The youngest sibling owns a building in Seocho District, southern Seoul, and also in Gwangju, both worth over 10 billion won, according to the legal documents acquired by JoongAng Ilbo.

Choi Soon-deuk ran a furniture store in Gangnam District while her husband founded a company in 1987 and has since been working as president.

Choi Soon-cheon founded S-Plus International in 2012 and has since been working as its president. The company operates a bakery, a coffee shop and sells kitchen appliances. Her husband is president of Suhyang Networks, which sells kids’ attire. The couple owns at least 40 billion won in real estate.

The question is, how did the three sisters manage to get so lavishly wealthy?

In the November 1993 edition of Monthly JoongAng, a Blue House official was quoted as saying that Choi Soon-sil’s father, Choi Tae-min, was so poor in 1974 that he lived in a single-room house in Bulgwang-dong, northwestern Seoul, and had no telephone.

In 1985, Choi Soon-deuk purchased a building now worth 29 billion won. That same year, Choi Soon-sil bought another one and sold it in 2008 for 8.5 billion won. In 1989, Choi Soon-cheon bought a building now worth 20 billion won when she was 31. The three sisters were all in their late 20s to early 30s at that time.

The relationship between Choi Tae-min and President Park dates back to the 1970s, when the late Choi, the leader of a religious cult, mentored Park as she played the role of de facto first lady after her mother was assassinated.

Choi Soon-sil’s former husband, Chung Yoon-hoi, worked as Park’s chief of staff from 1998 to 2004 when she was a lawmaker. Choi Soon-sil also worked for the Yookyoung Foundation, a charity founded by Park’s mother.

When asked about the suspicion regarding their wealth, Seo Hyun-deok, director of strategic planning at Suhyang Networks and son of Choi Soon-cheon, said: “Our family business worked hard for our assets,” adding that it had “nothing to do with our aunt,” Choi Soon-sil.

On another front, a source who worked closely with the daughter of Choi Soon-deuk at the Korea Winter Sports Elite Center denied all accusations that he received suspicious government funds during an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. Choi Soon-deuk’s daughter, Jang Si-ho, 37, works as general secretary of the center, which was founded in June 2015.

The center has been at the center of controversy in recent days when it was revealed that it received 670 million in government funds from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism before the official opening, an amount government sources say is unusually colossal. It aims at training young skaters and offering jobs to professional athletes after they retire from sports.

In the exclusive interview, Lee Kyou-hyuk, executive director of the center and a former national long-track speed skater, told the JoongAng Ilbo that he had asked Jang how she was able to establish the center and was told he was the one who “did it all.”

Lee said he did not know what she meant at that time and wondered to himself what her intentions were.

Denying any personal wrongdoing in running the center, Lee said he was a “close friend” with Jang and had known her well since middle school, when he was her senior. The former athlete, however, was quick to add that he knew “nothing” about her family background and that he “simply thought her acquaintances had a high social reputation.”

Jang is said to have been a “rising star” in the local horseback riding industry during the 1990s, according to equestrian sources, adding that she played an influential role in leading her cousin, Chung Yoo-ra, to follow in her footsteps.

Jang gained admission to Yonsei University through a student equestrian athlete special admission.

BY MOON HEE-CHUL, CHE SEUNG-KI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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