03.03.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A North Korean connection in Lee Jae-myung case

The Lee Jae-myung’s saga continues, however, today we’ll not focus on the developments in his main case, which has resulted in an arrest warrant, but on the fact that after one accusation a second, potentially much more devastating, looms.

We are talking about a lingerie company, Ssang bang wool and its manager, Kim Seong-tae. He is a rather intriguing person.  The media claim that he was a representative of organized crime in North Jeolla province and has been repeatedly tried for running illegal gambling dens, selling illegal casino software, and unlicensed Crowdlending (peer-to-peer): areas typical of South Korean organized crime groups. In 2010, Kim turned into a classic businessman and headed a firm, but received a suspended prison sentence on charges of manipulating stock prices in the process of acquiring the group.

In May 2019, when Lee Jae-myung was governor of Gyeonggi Province, Kim obtained business licenses from North Korea in six areas, including mineral development.  To do so, he met with North Korean officials in China with the help of Lee Hwa-young, who was provincial Vice Governor at the time, and Ahn Bu-soo, president of the Seoul-based Asia-Pacific Peace Exchange Association.

Kim stepped down as chairman of the group in 2021, but allegedly remained a key decision maker.

According to the prosecution, Kim Sung-tae was one of Lee Jae-myung’s wallets. Ssang bang wool is suspected of paying fees to a lawyer who defended Lee in a trial to appeal a conviction for election law violations. The firm gave the lawyer 2.3 billion won ($1.85 million) in cash and Ssangbangwool convertible bonds.  The same lawyer also led a legal support team for Lee Jae-myung’s presidential campaign in 2022.

According to prosecutors, in 2018 and 2019, Kim ordered dozens of Ssang bang wool employees to smuggle a total of $6.4 million into China, which was then transferred to North Korea in exchange for mining rights and other business licenses.  When trusted persons in the investigative agencies told Kim that they were coming for him soon, he fled to Thailand, where he hid for nearly eight months before being arrested on January 10, 2023.

Kim’s extradition was expected to take a long time, but contrary to expectations, Kim told authorities that he would return to South Korea voluntarily because of fears of poor conditions in a Thai prison.

On January 17, 2023 Kim Seong-tae returned home and was immediately taken to the prosecutor’s office. On the same day, during a corruption trial involving former Gyeonggi Vice Governor Lee Hwa-young (arrested in September on charges of accepting bribes from Ssang bang wool), the former “lingerie magnate” (as he is referred to in the ROK media) admitted that Kim Seong-tae, Lee Jae-myung, and Lee Hwa-young were in a close relationship.

On January 20, Kim was arrested on a variety of charges including bribery, embezzlement, breach of trust, and violations of the Foreign Exchange Law and the Political Funds Law. In addition, Kim is accused of providing 330 million won ($265,437) in illegal political funds to Lee Hwa-young in the form of a corporate credit card and luxury cars between 2018 and 2022.

On January 31, the media, citing “informed officials,” reported that during questioning, Kim Seong-tae allegedly said he had delivered $5 million to North Korea in 2019 to help promote the Smart Farm project and another $3 million to arrange Lee Jae-myung’s trip to the North. Kim then allegedly admitted that on January 17, 2019 he had spoken with Lee over the phone of Vice Governor Lee Hwa-young, who informed his boss of all his deals with the North. According to the investigation, this means that Lee Jae-myung knew about the illegal transfer of dollars to North Korea, and Lee Hwa-young facilitated contacts between Kim Seong Tae and the North Korean authorities. He was allegedly paid a bribe of $170,000 for this intermediary role.

New details emerged on February 2, 2023. In addition to the $8 million mentioned above, it turned out that Kim Seong-tae had sent the North Koreans another $500,000, whose purpose the prosecutors are now trying to determine. The prosecutors charged Kim Seong-tae with illegally bringing millions of dollars to North Korea.

Lee Jae-myung, for his part, categorically denied the accusations, once again denying that he knew the man.

Lee Jae-myung’s supporters also claim that Kim was bought and that everything he says after his return is a secret deal with justice in which he shifts responsibility from himself to Lee Jae-myung and his team. But Ssang bang wool employees have admitted to smuggling dollars in cash into China, and there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that is consistent with Kim’s statement.

The author has questions about the aforementioned projects in North Korea. Kim, as we can see, admits to transferring money, but it was “in the spirit of the times,” when there were high hopes for inter-Korean cooperation and friendship. In addition, in his version, the $5 million was payment for his company to obtain exclusive rights to develop rare earth metals in North Korea.

Today, however, any effective inter-Korean cooperation capable of bringing real benefits to the North is blocked by sanctions resolutions. Smart farms, and even more so the mining of rare earth elements, were impossible, even during the years of the “Olympic warming.”

In fact, even before sanctions, the role of such projects was specific.  Even the lauded Kaesong Industrial Complex was not a major currency purse for the North and an act of altruism for the South. Although the North Korean citizens who worked there for South Korean small and medium-sized businesses were paid much higher wages than the North’s average, their remunerations were still much lower than the South’s average, even if they had been replaced by guest workers from South or Southeast Asia.

The governor’s visit, too, would have been purely ceremonial, making Lee the chief promoter of inter-Korean dialogue. The approval for cooperation was given by someone else entirely, so all these projects must be perceived either as a kind of “rainbow-chasing”, very strange for such seasoned politicians and businessmen, or as corrupt schemes that would provide political PR for Lee Jae-myung and personal benefit for Kim Seong-tae, or (of course, conservatives love this version) simply as transfers of millions of dollars to North Korea for reasons of political affinities.

Either way, the transfer of large sums of money to North Korea violates both the international sanctions regime and South Korean law, which is why Kim Seong-tae’s case is of interest not only to South Korean justice, but also to the U.S. State Department and international agencies that monitor violations of anti-North Korean sanctions.

Formally, the investigation is looking for evidence that Lee Jae-myung knew about the cash transfers to the North and/or the transactions took place according to his instructions. In this context, prosecutors investigating Ssang bang wool raided the Gyeonggi provincial administration secretariat on February 22 to seize documents and materials allegedly related to the former Vice Governor, Lee Hwa-young. In fact, commonplace in the media were sentences like “it is hard to believe that the Vice Governor promoted the North Korean provincial project and the Governor’s visit to North Korea on his own.” Almost the same wording was used against Park Geun-hye to accuse her of everything her aides had done.

To summarize: the transfer of funds to North Korea is a serious accusation, distinct from the current leader of the democratic opposition’s other incriminations. Since corruption is one thing, while material aid to the enemy is a direct violation of the National Security Act. Accusations of pro-North Korean activities continue to have a massive “destructive effect,” and if officially filed, the Democratic leader will suffer for his political views as well.

The situation is on the verge of a major political escalation. The Democrats’ only option is to spark a large-scale political crisis, in which either the government will fall into their hands or the authorities will be forced to drop such charges. On the other hand, Lee Jae-myung has already been served with an arrest warrant in connection with corruption cases – but more on that in the following story.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.