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Prosecutors begin probe into SK on allegations of bribery

Mar 17,2017
The prosecution launched Thursday a probe into the SK Group to investigate a suspicion that the telecommunication giant bribed former President Park Geun-hye during her term in return for its chairman’s special pardon from jail.

The special investigation team started questioning three former and current top executives of the SK Group in the morning. The team, headed by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chief Lee Young-ryeol, is also in charge of investigating other allegations involving Park, her associates and other conglomerates.

Kim Chang-geun, former chairman of the SK SUPEX Council, the conglomerate’s top decision-making body, was summoned for questioning. Former SK Vice Chairman Kim Young-tae and SK Broadband CEO Lee Hyung-hee were also summoned.

Kim Chang-geun was suspected of meeting Park, then the president, alone in July 2015 to arrange the special pardon for SK Chairman Chey Tae-won. After serving two years and seven months of a four-year prison term for embezzlement and corporate malpractices, Chey received presidential pardon on Aug. 12, 2015. He returned as SK Group chairman in March 2016.

The prosecution said it will concentrate investigative power on the conglomerates’ alleged offering of bribes to Park before summoning the disgraced leader for questioning next week. Park will be questioned Tuesday about her suspected abuse of power and bribery while she was in office since February 2013. Her presidency was terminated on March 10 by the Constitutional Court’s ruling to uphold the National Assembly’s impeachment.

In earlier investigations by the prosecution and an independent counsel, Park was identified as a co-conspirator in various corruption crimes. She and her friend, Choi Soon-sil, were accused of receiving massive funds from large business groups in return for using Park’s presidential power to give them illicit favors.

As of now, SK, Lotte and CJ groups, in addition to Samsung, are being accused of offering bribes to Park. A senior prosecution source said Thursday that the two companies will also be investigated one after another.

He also said it remains to be seen if the prosecution will summon Chey for questioning.

A key piece of evidence that the prosecution has secured is a transcript of a conversation between Chey and SK Vice Chairman Kim Young-tae on Aug. 10, 2015. The conversation took place at the Uijeongbu Prison where Chey was serving his jail term.

“It’s not too unbearable,” Chey was recorded as saying. “I just need to be here a few more days.”

“The king chairman signed off a homecoming,” Kim responded. “Our burdens became high. She clearly gave us homework.”

The prosecution and independent counsel team determined that “king chairman” refers to then President Park and “homecoming” means Chey’s special pardon. They said Chey was aware he would be on the pardon list before it was announced.

On Aug. 13, 2015, the day after the special pardon announcement, Kim Chang-geun, then chairman of the SK SUPEX Council, sent a text message to An Chong-bum, then senior secretary for economy at the Blue House, to express thanks for Chey’s release.

“I am forever indebted,” the message said. “Thank you for the special pardon of Chairman Chey Tae-won.”

The 2015 pardon list included some businessmen, but the number was kept to a maximum of 14. Among them, Chey was the only chaebol head to be released.

Since then, SK promised an aggressive 46 trillion won ($40.6 billion) investment in the semi-conductor industry. It also contributed 6.8 billion won and 4.3 billion won each to the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations established as Park’s pet projects. An already testified before the Constitutional Court in January during Park’s impeachment trial that he had recommended Park issue a special pardon for Chey. An also said he met Kim Chang-geun on July 13, 2015, and received a request for Chey’s release.

An was also summoned by the prosecution on Thursday and questioned further on the SK case.

The independent counsel team, which concluded its investigation in February, also suspected Kim requested the special pardon when he had an exclusive meeting with Park in July 2015 on behalf of Chey in prison. Kim allegedly made the request in return for the SK’s contributions to the two foundations. The prosecutors also suspect that SK made a request to Park to win a duty free business license in return for additional donations to the K-Sports Foundation. SK lost its license in November 2015, and the prosecution believed Chey made the request to Park during his one-on-one meeting in February last year.

BY SER MYO-JA, JEONG JIN-WOO [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]