A con artist or hero?

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A con artist or hero?

Ko Young-tae, a former associate of Choi Soon-sil, has become a central player in the influence-peddling scandal involving Choi and President Park Geun-hye. Ko, a former fencer, is reported to have met Choi at a host bar and ran paper companies on her behalf. He taped discreet conversations with Choi through a CCTV camera at a clothing boutique he ran.

Among Choi’s associates, Ko has become one of the more eager whistle-blowers along with Noh Seung-il, a senior manager at K-Sports, one of two foundations that Choi set up using corporate donations. Noh said he gathered evidence of misdeeds committed by Choi and her inner circle while living in Germany. The two rose to stardom for speaking frankly about Choi during questioning by investigators. Opposition politicians have lauded Ko as a brave hero.

But the so-called hero is now nowhere to be found. Ko went into hiding after records of his conversations were exposed during a court trial earlier this month. He did not show up as a witness to President Park’s impeachment trial at the Constitutional Court.

In the recorded conversation, Ko told another colleague at Blue K, a paper company he ran for Choi, that it was best for them to scheme a little and wait until “things blow up so that everything falls” in their hands. He claimed that he was “drawing up a picture.” The conversation suggests he would expose Choi’s corruption and take over the K-Sports foundation.

In another conversation, Ko said he had to get into the foundation as deputy secretary general, calling the director and secretary general “trash bags” that had to be removed so that they could move in. There is another conversation in which he schemes to win a 3.6 billion won ($3.2 million) state project using Choi’s influence. The person on the other side of the phone tells him that he will be looking forward to a “big party.”

Ko claimed he had just been kidding around with a friend. He denied any scheming and said he had explained everything to prosecutors.

So was the media raising a hoopla over his so-called jokes? Or was it just that his scheming had flopped? Choi did indeed fall with the blow. But what’s scary is that K-Sports remains intact under the control of Ko’s associates.

K-Sports had been on the brink of dissolution twice. The Federation of Korean Industries, a lobbying group for Korea’s big business, said it would dismantle Choi’s two foundations — K-Sports and Mi-R — and merge them into one. But the federation backed down, claiming its proposal was rejected by the K-Sports board. Although the federation was the primary benefactor of the two foundations, it did not have any say in management affairs.

Then, a civic group, the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, called for the disbandment of the federation and confiscation of its funds, citing a law that can kill the business license of a corporate entity that does business beyond its purpose and harms the public interest. But the government maintains it cannot force the shutdown of an entity until the prosecution’s investigation ends. The court upholds the offense charges.

Mi-R and K-Sports are left astray. After the government turned away, the Federation of Korean Industries and the foundations’ boards have become dysfunctional. A power struggle is ongoing in the sinking K-Sports ship. The foundation is spending more than 80 million won a month to pay its directors 10 million won and its staff an average 6 million won. The foundation has seven staff members, mostly loyal to Ko. Noh, Lee Cheol-yong, Kang Chi-gon and Park Jae-ho are all alumni of Ko’s school, Korea National Sport University. If President Park and Choi are taken out of the picture, K-Sports would really fall in the hands of Ko and his associates as he had planned.

The Ministry of Sports and Culture says the two foundations do not have any intent to dissolve on their own will. Of the 77.4 billion won the two foundations have collected from corporations, 80 percent, or 62 billion won, are earmarked for operations. As a result, they are immune from regulatory action.

K-Sports claims that now that it is free from Choi, the fund should be true to its purpose and contribute to sports promotion. In November, it presented a 500 million won project to incubate aspiring athletes. It is expected to stay defiant even if the ministry orders it to disband. The foundation last year spent 8.8 million won to recruit a lawyer. It will likely spend what it has to fight court battles.

In sum, President Park rounded up the country’s conglomerates to wring money out of them, Choi put that money in her piggy bank and Ko was out to steal that piggy bank. President Park had been played by schemers who wiretapped and betrayed one another.

K-Sports is a zombie organization. But it remains unclear whether it should be kept alive or liquidated according to the law. Will Ko end up celebrating his great scam? We may have to wait for this soap opera to end to find out whether Ko is really a con artist or a hero.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 15, Page 31

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Chul-ho
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