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Prosecutors Query S. Korea Tycoons : Probe: Investigators seeking source of ex-president’s $653-million fund call in three wealthy businessmen.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three of South Korea’s top tycoons appeared today before state prosecutors to be questioned on suspicion of contributing to a $653-million slush fund that former President Roh Tae Woo amassed while in office.

It was the first time that the multibillionaires who dominate South Korea’s economy have been subjected to an en masse summons since the 1960s, when the late President Park Chung Hee hauled in business leaders on suspicion of illicit transactions.

Appearing today were Lee Kun Hee, chairman of the Samsung Group; Koo Cha Kyung, chairman of the LG Group, and Choi Won Suk, head of the Dong Ah Group. Questioning of a fourth tycoon, Chung Ju Yung, 80, founder of the Hyundai Group, was delayed until Thursday because of his reported ill health, a prosecution official said.

The prosecutor’s office also notified the Daewoo and Lotte groups that their chief executives should appear for questioning as soon as they return from overseas trips.

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Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Daewoo rank among South Korea’s top five conglomerates that operate dozens of subsidiaries in fields such as semiconductors, appliances, autos, shipbuilding, computers, insurance and securities.

In their importance to South Korean society, they are comparable to such corporations as General Motors, Ford, Exxon and AT&T; in the United States.

Prosecutors said 20 more tycoons will be brought in for questioning this week. On Tuesday, they questioned two chairmen of second-tier conglomerates, along with a National Assembly ruling party member who is a brother-in-law of Roh.

Hyundai founder Chung, who unsuccessfully challenged Kim Young Sam for the presidency in 1992, declared then that he personally gave Roh regular contributions ranging between $2.6 million and $13 million. Chung added that business people had contributed funds to presidents dating back to the days of Park, who was assassinated in 1979.

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Last Friday, conglomerate chairmen who lead the Korean Federation of Industries apologized for contributing under-the-table funds to presidents for more than three decades, declared that they had ceased the practice under Kim and pledged never again to offer such gifts.

On Oct. 27, Roh went on television to admit building up contributions from business leaders into the $653-million fund, which he said he used for “governing” South Korea between 1988 and 1993.

Roh apologized and said he was ready to accept punishment but asked forgiveness for the business people.

Police, meanwhile, launched a search for Bai Jong Ryul, former chairman of the Hanyang Group, who has been in hiding since Friday, when prosecutors said they would summon him.

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“Bai has been placed on the wanted list, and a notice has been sent across the nation,” Ahn Kang Min, the investigating prosecutor, said. “We suspect him of providing slush funds to Roh.”


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