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Media Making Hay Out of Admitted Thief's Kimchi Tales

Burglar charges officials are denying true amounts of cash pilfered from, among other places, a refrigerator hiding place.

May 14, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Call it the kimchi capers.

A thief breaks into the homes of several prominent citizens, including two Cabinet members and two police chiefs, stealing all kinds of loot.

But when the burglar is finally apprehended, he tells prosecutors that his victims have vastly understated their losses.

A police chief failed to report a wad of cash-stuffed envelopes the thief had lifted from under a container for the pickled cabbage in the refrigerator, claims the burglar, 32-year-old Kim Kang Ryong. Another police chief failed to report stacks of bills allegedly pilfered from a vase. Missing gold ingots, expensive jewels and valuable paintings also went unreported, the thief insists.

The burglar even claims to have stolen $120,000 from the briefcase of a prominent governor who is President Kim Dae Jung's economic advisor.

In a country where memories of bribery scandals that brought down former presidents are still fresh, the scandal has South Koreans wondering whether to believe an acknowledged thief or their own officials.

"The politicians are all thieves," taxi driver Kim Il Won, 48, scoffed as he launched into a harangue about corruption. "They wouldn't claim how much they lost, because the politicians would have [gotten] their wealth through corruption in the first place."

Raising eyebrows even more is how the thief's story came to light. While in jail awaiting trial, burglar Kim sent a letter disclosing his allegations to the opposition Grand National Party, which went public with the charges.

Many publications now are making hay with the scandal. "The thief is shouting out and the victims are hush-hush," blared a recent headline in the Hankuk newspaper. Some of the 19 victims whom the thief claims to have stolen from say they aren't missing anything at all.

Another paper ran a comic turning a popular South Korean phrase, "Mind your own rice bowl," a saying that refers to protecting your livelihood, into, "Mind your own kimchi box."

The police chief who left his money in the refrigerator disputes the thief's claim, according to newspaper reports. Bae Kyung Hwan, the police chief of Anyang, near Seoul, claims to have lost only 8 million won (about $7,000) in cash that he said he was saving from bonuses, not the 50 million-plus won that the thief claims he found in 58 envelopes. (Bae did not return calls seeking comment.)

Moreover, the police chief disputes where the thief says he left the cash: It wasn't under a kimchi box in the regular refrigerator, as the thief claims, but rather was stashed in a refrigerator designed especially for storing kimchi, a South Korean mainstay.

Any humor in the situation is lost on Gov. You Jong Keun. "There's absolutely nothing amusing at all about this," a spokesman for his office said. "We're taking this extremely seriously, as it's being used as a political tool."

So angry is the governor--an advisor to the president from North Cholla province, in the southwest part of the country--that he says he's suing the Grand National Party for slander. The party says it plans to countersue.

The thief claims to have stolen 32 million won, as well as $120,000 in U.S. bills, from a briefcase left at the governor's residence in Seoul. The thief also says he made off with pearl rings and other jewelry worth about 20 million won, for a grand theft valued at 190 million won (about $165,500). The governor reported losing only 40 million won: 35 million won in cash and jewelry worth 5 million won.

But even if he only lost as much as he reported, many are left wondering why the governor had the equivalent of $30,000 cash lying around an official residence in Seoul. You claims that about half was for emergency use as governor and that he was planning to lend the rest to his brother-in-law.

"Ordinary people don't save money in the kimchi box or refrigerator," said Lee Sung Kwon, chief economist at Ssangyong Investment & Securities Co. in Seoul. Each year, government officials must disclose their holdings. "But if they save in an ordinary bank account, everyone knows how much they have."

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