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(LEAD) Ex-Ssangbangwool chief said to have paid N. Korea US$8 mln in 2019 on behalf of Lee, Gyeonggi Province

14:29 January 31, 2023

(ATTN: UPDATES with opposition leader Lee's remarks)

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- An arrested underwear tycoon allegedly said he delivered US$8 million to North Korea in 2019 to help promote Gyeonggi Province's smart farm project and then Gov. Lee Jae-myung's visit to the North, informed officials said Tuesday.

Kim Seong-tae, former chairman of underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group, who was nabbed in Thailand in early January after months on the run, reportedly made the controversial remarks during questioning by prosecutors in Suwon, 34 kilometers south of Seoul.

Kim Seong-tae, former chairman of underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group, arrives at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, from Thailand, in this Jan. 17, 2023, file photo. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

The Suwon District Court issued an arrest warrant for Kim on Jan. 20 on multiple charges, including embezzlement, bribery and the illegal transfer of cash to North Korea.

Previously, Kim told prosecutors that he only handed a total of over $5 million to North Korea on two occasions in 2019 to pursue economic cooperation rights involving the North.

As the prosecution presented other related documents, however, the underwear tycoon reportedly disclosed an additional remittance of $3 million to Pyongyang and the reasons for the cash payment, the officials said.

Kim allegedly said that $5 million was delivered in connection with Gyeonggi Province's smart farm project in North Korea and the additional $3 million was intended to facilitate Lee's visit to the North.

Based on Kim's alleged remarks, prosecutors are expected to widen their investigation into why Kim and Ssangbangwool Group handed over the large amount of money to North Korea on behalf of Gyeonggi Province.

In addition, they are expected to look into whether Lee, now the chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party, was aware of the cash remittance to the North.

Lee served as the Gyeonggi governor from 2018 to 2021. The province's bid for a smart farm cooperation project in North Korea began in 2018.

It has also been known that Kim made remarks to the effect that he heard that all his dealings with North Korea were reported to Lee via then Gyeonggi Province Vice Gov. Lee Hwa-young.

In addition, Kim is said to have reversed his previous statement that he had never spoken to Lee on the phone. The underwear tycoon allegedly admitted that he spoke to Lee on the vice governor's phone in January 2019.

Lee flatly rejected the allegations as a "new novel" by the prosecution.

"It appears that a new novel by the prosecution has been released," he told reporters. "Considering their creative writing skills, it won't sell well."

Lee has undergone two rounds of questioning in two separate corruption cases, including one surrounding a massive property development project pushed for in the Daejang-dong district of Seongnam, south of Seoul, when he was its mayor.

He has rejected all allegations against him, claiming the investigation is politically motivated.

Still, Lee said Monday he would appear for another round of questioning, saying he thinks the investigation is a price he has to pay because he lost to President Yoon Suk Yeol in last year's presidential election.


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