Former SBW chairman is whisked to questioning from Incheon airport
The former chairman of SBW Group arrived at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday morning and was whisked to the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office to face questioning on a string of corruption accusations.
Kim Seong-tae, 55, who was nabbed on a golf course in Thailand last week after eight months on the lam, denied any wrongdoing when confronted by reporters at the airport and said he would prove his innocence.
Kim denied knowing Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Jae-myung, let alone paying his legal fees when the politician was being prosecuted for violating the election law in 2018, when Lee was governor of Gyeonggi.
Kim, ex-chairman and de-facto owner of SBW Group, fled Korea in May 2022 as prosecutors were zeroing in on him on the legal fee allegation. He escaped to Singapore and ended up in Thailand.
Thai police apprehended Kim on a golf course in Pathum Thani Province, north of Bangkok, on Jan. 10. At the time of his arrest, Kim was with his cousin Yang Seon-gil, current chairman of SBW Group, who was also arrested and brought back to Korea on Tuesday.
Kim, who voluntarily boarded an Asiana Airlines flight from Suvarnabhumi Bangkok International Airport on Tuesday at 12:50 a.m., told reporters at the airport that he “never met” DP Chairman Lee and doesn’t even know his phone number.
When asked about the legal fee allegation, Kim responded that it was “preposterous.”
Kim arrived at Incheon International Airport at 9:10 a.m. and was taken to the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office handcuffed, arriving at 10:45 a.m.
Prosecutors said they were planning to first focus on suspicions that Kim used SBW Group company funds in 2018 and 2019 to purchase convertible bonds from shell companies believed to be owned by him and his closest aides.
A large portion of those convertible bonds was later purchased by an SBW Group affiliate, which hired a lawyer who worked on DP Chairman Lee’s election law violation case and served as head of Lee’s legal team when Lee ran for president in the 2022 race.
Prosecutors believe that the convertible bonds eventually ended up in the lawyer’s pocket.
Lee, who was acquitted of the alleged election violation by the Supreme Court in 2020, denies any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors are expected to file for a pre-trial detention warrant for Kim on Wednesday.
A local court last week issued pre-trial detention warrants for four suspects, including Kim’s younger brother, for allegedly helping Kim flee to Thailand and destroying evidence.
Kim also faces charges that he sent cash and extravagant gifts to North Korea’s leadership.
In 2019, SBW Group is believed to have given the North Korean government over $2 million in several transactions to land an underground resource development project.
SBW executives are also believed to have given Rolex watches to North Korean officials and a saddle made by luxury brand Hermès to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un is known to be an enthusiastic equestrian.
Prosecutors think the businessman tried to capitalize on thawing tensions between the two Koreas four years ago under the Moon Jae-in administration.
BY HEO JEONG-WON, LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]