Prosecution traces property deals of ex-president's relatives

SEOUL, July 21 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutors said Sunday they are looking into real estate transactions of former President Chun Doo-hwan's relatives as part of efforts to collect a massive fine the former military dictator owes the state.

In 1997, Chun was ordered by the top court to return to the state coffers the 220 billion won (US$195 million) he was found to have illegally accumulated during his military rule in the 1980s. He has only paid a quarter of the total so far, with some 167.2 billion won still unpaid.

Suspecting that Chun could be managing the stashed money with bank accounts opened under names borrowed from his relatives, prosecutors said they are sorting out properties suspected to be actually owned by Chun.

Noticeably, prosecutors said they are looking into a suspicious real estate deal between Chun's brother-in-law, Lee Chang-seok, and Chun's second-eldest son, Jae-yong.

A special investigative team within the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office said it suspects that Lee let the younger Chun buy a building at a below-market price to make a profit.

Chun, dogged by prosecutors for years, has refused to make the payment, saying he is nearly penniless.

Last week, a team of 90 prosecutors, tax collectors and investigators raided Chun's residence in eastern Seoul to search for hidden assets such as paintings, porcelain and expensive artifacts.

Prosecutors said they will try to determine the authenticity of nearly 500 pieces of artworks obtained from Chun's house and the head office of Chun Jae-yong.

Among the pieces of art is work believed to be by 48 famous artists, such as South Korean painters Cheon Kyoung-ja and Kim Jong-hak; Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon; and Mauro Staccioli, an Italian sculptor.

If these pieces are authentic, their combined value is expected to reach up to tens of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors say the expensive art pieces will be turned over to the state if found to have been purchased with the former president's money.

The investigation into Chun's assets has been gaining traction recently since the National Assembly passed a bill in June aimed at extending the statute of limitations on forfeiting and imposing fines on public officials' illegal wealth from three years to 10.

Under the revised law, Chun will be required to pay the remainder of his fines by October 2020, not October of this year.

The military coup in 1979 propelled Chun, an army major general at the time, into the power vacuum created by the assassination of former President Park Chung-hee, the father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.

Meanwhile, former President Roh Tae-woo, who replaced Chun as president, was also ordered to pay back 260 billion won. He has paid more than 90 percent of the sum, according to government officials.

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