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South Korean Political Battle Spills Into Orange County Court

July 27, 2001|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A South Korean politician living in Orange County has filed a civil lawsuit alleging that he was retaliated against in his native country for exposing corruption involving the son and wife of the president.

In the lawsuit, made public Thursday, Shin Bom Lee, a former member of South Korea's National Assembly, alleges that South Korean government officials trumped up criminal defamation charges against him after he demanded an investigation into President Kim Dae Jung's wife, Hee Ho Lee, and their son, Hong Gul Kim.

He charges that the first lady may have been involved in a bribery scandal that rocked Kim's presidency in 1999, and that Kim's son has close ties with a reputed South Korean arms dealer.

In May, South Korean prosecutors indicted Lee for defaming the members of the first family and, if convicted, he could face a lengthy prison term, according to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Lee, 51, said he filed the lawsuit in an attempt to clear his name.

"I'm forced to live in virtual exile," said Lee, a visiting professor at UC Irvine. "We'd like to do our best to force deposition and find the truth."

He is seeking close to $7 million in damages.

A spokesman for the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles denied the charges and said Lee, who lost a reelection bid last year, was motivated by politics.

"He is using the American judicial system for political gains," said Consul Seok Joong Yoon, who is also named in the lawsuit as a defendant.

Lee accuses Yoon of repeatedly threatening his life and demanding he drop the issue.

Yoon denied making threats. He added that he respects Lee, who spent nearly three years in jail for defying the the country's military dictatorship in the 1980s.

According to the lawsuit, in 1999, as member of the National Assembly, Lee demanded a special investigation into the first lady's possible role in a political scandal dubbed "furgate."

The wife of a businessman charged with fraud allegedly attempted to curry favor with high-ranking government officials by giving their wives expensive clothes, including fur coats. The lawsuit alleges that First Lady Lee may have received the gifts.

Lee also raised issue with the first son's alleged lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles. Lee suggested that the president's son was linked to an arms dealer who helped him buy a house in the South Bay.

Lee says those remarks were made in his capacity as a watchdog legislator and should have been protected speech. Instead, he said, the first lady, her son and others conspired to land him in prison.

Lee's family, including his wife and two adult children, live in the U.S. and he said he has no plans to return to South Korea until his name is cleared.

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