Former President Lee Myung-bak was questioned late into the night on Wednesday over corruption allegations that include bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement.
Lee faces nearly 20 criminal allegations, including receiving illicit funds of some 11.1 billion won ($10.4 million) from the state spy agency, individuals and businesses, including Samsung.
Former President Lee Myung-bak stands in the photo line at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office early in the morning for questioning Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Among other charges, he is suspected to be the real owner of controversial auto parts maker DAS -- which belongs to his elder brother Lee Sang-eun on paper -- and using the company to create a slush fund of some 30 billion won.
Prosecutors told reporters that Lee denied the allegations surrounding him throughout the day. He claimed either to be unaware of the irregularities raised, or that they were done independently by others around him, they said.
Lee arrived for questioning at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office at 9:25 a.m., and read from a prepared statement in front of 600 reporters and journalists before entering the building.
“I stand here today feeling wretched. I am sorry for causing concerns, when the country’s economy is facing difficulties and the security environment is at a sensitive point,” Lee said, without specifying what he had done to cause those concerns.
“For those who trust and support me, and those who are suffering from the issues raised, I sincerely apologize. As a former president, I do have a lot of things I want to say, but I promised myself I have to save my words.”
Lee also said he hopes for the day’s event to be the “last in history.”
The former conservative leader, who was in office from 2009 to 2013, is the fifth president to be grilled by the prosecution, following Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye.
He had ox bone soup delivered for lunch at 1:10 p.m. and the questioning resumed at 2 p.m. For dinner, he was to have another bowl of beef-bone soup at 6:50 p.m., according to the prosecutors. By opting for a dish with a down-at-heel image, Lee may be seeking to avoid the kind of criticism Roh Tae-woo faced for ordering a relatively lavish Japanese bento box while he was questioned.
Lee previously labeled the prosecution’s investigation as an act of “political revenge” by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, maintaining his innocence.
While it is typical practice to end a prosecutorial probe as late as midnight, some expect Lee’s questioning to continue to the next day, given the large number of allegations against him.
The prosecution reportedly prepared 120 pages of questions for Wednesday’s session, while Lee gathered with his lawyers for a last-minute check at his home Tuesday to prepare “fierce legal arguments,” according to a close aide of Lee.
As Lee continues to deny his involvement in the charges against him, the prosecution is expected to decide on whether to request an arrest warrant.
Three lawyers have registered to attend the prosecution questioning to assist Lee. They are Kang Hoon, 64, a judge-turned-lawyer who also served as Lee’s former presidential legal assistant, Pi Young-hyun, 48, and Kim Byung-cheol, 43.
Public response appears disappointed to find yet another former president investigated for corruption.
“It has been less than a year since former President Park Geun-hye was ousted and put on trial. It is sad that the figures who had led this country were actually at the forefront of irregularities,” Choi Yoon-hee, a 26-year-old office worker, told The Korea Herald as she passed by the prosecutor’s office in Seoul.
Wednesday’s interrogation of Lee comes 358 days after ousted President Park appeared at the prosecution’s office to be questioned on March 21 last year. She was arrested 10 days later.
Another citizen, who withheld his name, raised his voice to demand a thorough probe into political figures.
“It would be a shame if the prosecution fails to prove Lee’s wrongdoings. They should do their best to get rid of the wrongdoings of the past,” said the man, who appeared to be in his 40s.
Meanwhile, Lee’s close aide Kim Paik-joon said he would not deny the charges against him and said would spend the rest of his life atoning for his wrongdoing, in his first hearing held Wednesday.
Kim, who served as senior secretary for administrative affairs to Lee, was arrested on Jan. 17 over allegation of receiving more than 400 million won from the National Intelligence Service between 2008 and 2012 at Lee’s order.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)