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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Underwear tycoon agrees to return to Korea

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Kim Seong-tae, former chairman of SBW Group, right, and Yang Seon-gil, current chairman of SBW Group, at a golf course in Thailand on Tuesday evening shortly after they were arrested by Thai police [JOONGANG ILBO]

The former chairman of SBW Group, who was nabbed on a golf course in Thailand on Tuesday after eight months on the lam, could return to Korea as early as Friday.

SBW Group said in a statement Thursday that Kim Seong-tae was planning to arrive at Incheon International Airport this week and respond to questioning from prosecutors.  

“Many issues that have been raised will be resolved from the point that former Chairman Kim arrives [in Korea],” the company said.

A source at SBW Group, who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday on the condition of anonymity, said Kim agreed to come back to Korea without going through an extradition process.

Kim, 55, ex-chairman and de-facto owner of SBW Group, whose affiliates include the major underwear companies Ssangbangwool and Vivien, faces a wide range of corruption allegations, including some involving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Jae-myung.

The businessman fled Korea on May 31, 2022, as prosecutors were zeroing in on him. He escaped to Singapore and ended up in Thailand. Interpol issued a red notice for the search and arrest of Kim.

Thai police apprehended Kim on a golf course in Pathum Thani Province, north of Bangkok, at around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. At the time of his arrest, Kim was with current SBW Group Chairman Yang Seon-gil, who was also arrested.  

While prosecutors intended to ask Thai authorities to extradite Kim based on an extradition treaty Korea signed with Thailand in 2001, there was the possibility Kim would refuse extradition and have his case tried in a Thai court.

Kim also showed up at a Thai court on Thursday afternoon for a separate hearing on deportation.  

When Kim was arrested by Thai police, he was said to have denied that he was staying in Thailand illegally, claiming that he applied for a visa and was awaiting its approval. Korean prosecutors denied this, saying Kim was indeed staying in Thailand illegally because the Korean government nullified his passport.

The Thai court on Thursday ruled that Kim was staying in Thailand illegally and ordered him to pay 3,000 baht ($90) in fines.

According to the SBW source, Kim weighed various options after he was arrested, including escaping to another country and seeking asylum, but determined every option was unrealistic and said he would return to Korea without undergoing extradition.

Prosecutors think Kim used his SBW Group to collude with political circles and send cash and extravagant gifts to North Korea’s leadership while embezzling company funds to pay off DP Chairman Lee’s legal fees, all to increase his own wealth.

Kim, who stepped down from the SBW chairmanship in May 2021 but allegedly remains in charge of major decision-making at the company, is believed to have paid Lee’s legal fees when he was being prosecuted for violating the election law in 2018, when Lee was governor of Gyeonggi.

Lee was acquitted of that election law violation by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Kim is also under investigation for smuggling company funds out of the company to give to North Korean officials for future business opportunities. Kim allegedly gave an Hermès saddle to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Prosecutors earlier this week asked a local court to issue pre-trial detention warrants for six suspects at SBW on allegations of helping Kim escape to Thailand and destroying evidence.

BY HA JUN-HO, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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