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[Editorial] Suspicions circling Lee

Former Gyeonggi vice governor under investigation for taking bribe from Ssang Bang Wool

Lee Hwa-young, the former vice governor of Gyeonggi Province who is said to be close to Lee Jae-myung, the new leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, is under the prosecution's investigation for allegedly taking a bribe from Ssang Bang Wool, a clothing company. Currently, he is chief executive of the Korea International Exhibition Center, which is affiliated with the provincial government.

He resigned as an outside director of Ssang Bang Wool in June 2018 when Lee Jae-myung was elected Gyeonggi governor, and then worked as the provincial vice governor for peace until January 2020. Afterward he was appointed as chief executive of the convention center.

He is suspected of spending about 100 million won ($72,300) with a corporate credit card of Ssang Bang Wool when he was Gyeonggi vice governor. The prosecution regards it as a bribe.

Ssang Bang Wool is also said to have provided hundreds of millions of won indirectly as financial support for an inter-Korean exchange event hosted by the province when Lee Jae-myung was governor of Gyeonggi and Lee Hwa-young was vice governor.

The company also appointed several lawyers who defended then-Gov. Lee Jae-myung in a trial of his alleged election law violation as outside directors of its affiliates.

Last week, Suwon District Prosecutors Office raided the Kintex CEO's office and a unit of an officetel (a building used for both residential and commercial purposes) in connection with an allegation that as vice governor, Lee Hwa-young spent about 100 million won for more than two years with a Ssang Bang Wool credit card that he had received from the company in January 2019.

This suspicion seems to be entwined with another allegation that Ssang Bang Wool offered hundreds of millions of won in indirect financial support for the South-North Korea exchange event hosted by the Gyeonggi government twice -- in 2018 and 2019. Lee Hwa-young in the capacity of vice governor for peace took charge of holding the event.

Before the 2018 edition of the event was held, an affiliate of Ssang Bang Wool had unveiled a plan to enter the electricity infrastructure business in North Korea. At that time, the provincial government publicized the event as Gov. Lee’s achievement.

Lee Hwa-young is said to have stopped using the Ssang Bang Wool credit card from September last year soon after an allegation surfaced that it paid attorney fees for Gov. Lee while he was on trial for an alleged election law violation.

It is possible he already knew that the company was involved in the suspected vicarious payment of attorney fees.

A lawyer suspected of receiving 300 million won in cash and 2 billion won in convertible bonds from Ssang Bang Wool, apparently as legal fees for defending Lee Jae-myung in the case, was appointed as an outside director of one of its affiliates in 2019. Later he led the legal aid team for Lee's 2022 presidential campaign.

When Gyeonggi hosted an inter-Korean exchange event jointly with the Asia Pacific Exchange Association, a private organization, in 2018, Ssang Bang Wool effectively supported the event with an 800 million won sponsorship for the association.

Now party leader Lee dismisses the possibility that Ssang Bang Wool has anything to do with him, but new allegations that seem to point at him keep surfacing.

An investigator for prosecutors probing allegations related to Ssang Bang Wool was found to have leaked investigation secrets to one of its board members who is said to have once worked with the investigator. Shortly after the leak, Kim Seong-tae, the former Ssang Bang Wool chairman who doubles as its de facto owner, left the country and has not returned yet. It is likely that he ran away.

The Democratic Party of Korea and its leader have condemned the investigations into Lee Jae-myung as political oppression. The prosecution will have to keep an unshakable will to get to the bottom of the allegations. All it has to do is to investigate allegations and prosecute suspects in accordance with the law and principles.



By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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