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Former South Korean Presidential Aide Questioned in Payment Scandal - 2003-06-16


Investigators in South Korea have summoned a former top presidential aide for questioning over the secret transfer of cash to North Korea before the inter-Korean summit of 2000. South Korean media reports say the official, Park Ji-won, may have played a vital role in facilitating the controversial payments.

A probe into half-billion dollars in payments to North Korea is now underway in Seoul, with South Korean investigators questioning a senior government official from the administration of former President Kim Dae-jung.

Opposition leaders have accused Mr. Kim's administration of bribing Pyongyang into participating in the historic inter-Korean summit of 2000.

On Monday, the independent counsel overseeing the high-profile investigation summoned Park Ji-won, the chief of staff to Mr. Kim, whose five-year term ended in February. Before the meeting Mr. Park told reporters he would cooperate fully with the probe and would take responsibility for its findings.

Mr. Park is the highest-ranking official to be summoned in the case so far. Mr. Kim's former economic adviser, Lee Ki-ho, was arrested last month on charges related to the scandal.

No charges have been brought against Mr. Kim himself, and he has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the affair.

He has said he realized the transactions might have been illegal, but his government allowed them because they were used to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. The two Koreas have remained technically at war since 1953, when the Korean War ended with no peace treaty.

Investigators say the funds were transferred from state-run banks to Hyundai, the powerful South Korean conglomerate, which then passed the money on to North Korea. Hyundai says the transfers were payments for business deals and were unrelated to the summit.

Mr. Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in arranging the summit, but in the eyes of many South Koreans, his legacy has been tarnished by the payments scandal.

Since the summit took place, progress has been made in holding reunions of family members divided since the war, and in joint projects such as the building of a cross-border railway.

But with growing international concern over the North's nuclear ambitions and with Pyongyang engaged in a string of provocative acts, the two nations are once again eying each other suspiciously.

Pyongyang has protested the investigation into the payments. South Korea's new President, Roh Moo-hyun, a protégé of Kim Dae-jung, supports it, saying the public deserves the facts.

In the next few days, the team running the probe is expected to ask President Roh to extend its deadline of June 25. The inspectors have indicated they need more time to gather information on how the alleged $500 million payoff took place.