Kyung Joon Kim, a former Los Angeles city commissioner wanted in South Korea for allegedly masterminding a $30-million investment fraud, left Los Angeles on Thursday for Seoul to face prosecutors who have sought his extradition for more than three years.
Kim was once a business partner of the leading presidential candidate in South Korea, and political observers say that what he tells prosecutors in coming days could influence the Dec. 19 election.
In South Korea and in Los Angeles, the largest Korean community outside Asia, Kim's extradition has been a top news item since he withdrew his appeal. The interest grew this week as rumors circulated that he would soon return to Seoul. Numerous reporters and camera crews with Korean-language news outlets -- from California as well as South Korea -- stationed themselves at Los Angeles International Airport in hopes of catching his departure.
But the timing of his extradition, handled by the U.S. marshal's office and a team from South Korea, was a well-guarded secret. Kim left on a direct Asiana Airlines flight to Seoul shortly after noon Thursday, apparently without being detected by the swarm of Korean journalists. He was expected arrive in Seoul early this morning.
Kim was arrested by FBI agents, U.S. marshals and Beverly Hills police in May 2004 at his Beverly Hills home and held at the Metropolitan Detention Center until hours before his flight.
"Mr. Kim thinks the charges put forth are trumped up," said Los Angeles attorney Eric Honig, who represents Kim in several civil cases. "He has denied all along that he committed any fraud or embezzlement."
Kim, 41 is an Ivy League-educated financier who was appointed to the city's Industrial Development Authority in 2003 by then-Mayor James K. Hahn. He also was a business partner of Lee Myung-bak, the presidential nominee of the conservative Grand National Party who is leading in the polls.
Lee, a former mayor of Seoul who was a top executive at Hyundai Group, says he broke all ties with Kim in 2001 and denies having knowledge of the alleged fraud. But Kim has said it was Lee who was the behind-the-scenes power of the troubled BBK investment firm. The company was shut down in 2001 by a South Korean regulatory agency.
Koreatown attorney William Kil, who supports presidential candidate Lee, says Kim's case will "definitely have negative impact" on the nominee. "It's a live person; people listen to live persons," he said.
But Ho Chung, a former Garden Grove councilman who also backs Lee, says he is confident that his candidate will win because he is so far ahead of the pack.
Koreans in the United States cannot contribute to campaigns in South Korea and, if they are U.S. citizens, cannot vote there. But they can influence the campaigns through friendship, business associations and school connections. It's not unusual to see full-page political ads in Korean-language newspapers here. Though the ads list U.S. supporters, they actually are designed to sway voters back in South Korea.
Many Korean immigrants in Los Angeles lived through the Korean War and remain grateful for the U.S. role in saving South Korea from communist North Korea. As a result, Lee's pro-America stance resonates with many.
It is in this ambience that Kim's case is playing out.
Kim, whose American name is Christopher, was 5 when he immigrated to the United States with his family, who ran a liquor store in Los Angeles.
He was educated at Cornell University and received advanced degrees at the University of Chicago and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After working for major investment firms in the United States, he returned to South Korea, working as an investment executive. It was during this time -- 2000 and 2001 -- that the alleged fraud occurred, according to a complaint filed by Assistant U.S. Atty. John E. Lee in Los Angeles. The complaint does not allege wrongdoing in the United States.
Using a corporate charter issued by Nevada, Kim allegedly created 19 fake entities, made seven counterfeit U.S. passports and used them to establish foreign corporations and to open stock and security accounts, the complaint said.
Court papers say South Korean authorities accuse him of embezzling about $32 million from Optional Ventures Korea, of which he was chief executive, to pay personal bills and transfer funds through overseas accounts.
Kim and his wife, Bora Lee, moved back to the United States in December 2001, before South Korean authorities issued an arrest warrant, the complaint said.
Kim's extradition case was handled by the Federal Public Defender Office because his assets were frozen by the U.S. government, Deputy Federal Public Defender Gail Ivens said.
Kim successfully fought to reclaim those assets. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins ruled that his assets should be released. Collins said, in effect, that the government had failed to produce evidence of fraud.