By Kim Tae-jong
Kim Won-hong, a former personal asset manager for SK Holdings Chairman Chey Tae-won, is now at the center of public attention after emerging as a key figure in the embezzlement case involving Chey and his younger brother.
The two brothers have been found guilty of embezzling corporate funds worth more than 46 billion won ($43 million) from affiliates, but the elder Chey pointed the finger at Kim, arguing he was the main culprit behind the massive embezzlement scheme, and requested the court question him.
But many ask how he could have earned the trust of Chey to manage the massive amounts of conglomerate funds. Who on earth is Kim?
Rumors regarding him have been spreading quickly. He earned the nickname of "fortuneteller" for successful investments. This ability helped him become the personal asset manager for the Chey family.
It is known that Kim began his career at a securities firm in the 1990s, and earned his reputation with huge profitable investments.
Many industry insiders believe that he used to be a shaman or studied shamanism, which was the main reason behind his success.
"He was a legendary figure. People said he had an ability to foresee the future and he was even famous as a fortune-teller when he was young," an analyst at a brokerage house said, who refused to be named.
Chey said he first met Kim in 1999 after former SK Telecom Chairman Son Kil-seung introduced the two.
Later Kim helped Chey increase his liquid assets and protect his position as the SK Group Chairman after he succeeded his father Chey Jong-hyon upon his death in 1998.
Since then, they were very close "as if they were brothers," and Kim became an adviser for SK Shipping and deeply involved in all management at the group, having an influence on major decision-making processes.
"Chey's trust in Kim was immeasurable," an industry source said. "Kim sustained hundreds of billions of won in losses from unsuccessful investments in 2008 but Chey kept entrusting him with massive amounts of money."
An official from SK Group also said Chey visited Kim's hometown in Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang Province when Kim's father died in 2010 and helped Kim hold a funeral ceremony, as if he were one of chief mourners along with Kim.
But their close relationship broke down when Kim suddenly fled to China in 2011 before an investigation into an SK slush fund scandal began. Later, avoiding prosecutors, he went to Taiwan.
He was sought by Interpol and was finally arrested by Taiwanese law enforcement authorities in August for violating immigration laws.
Seoul requested the Taiwanese authorities to extradite Kim, but it seemed difficult as the two countries have no extradition treaty.
Kim was finally extradited on Sept. 26, a day before the appeals court reached its verdict on the Chey brothers.
Some thought the extradition could affect final deliberations as Chey's lawyers asked the court to delay its ruling until it could question Kim directly, but this request was rejected, as the court said it already had abundant evidence to punish the accused.
At the appeals court, the elder Chey had his sentence of four years in prison for embezzling corporate funds from affiliates worth more than 46 billion won ($43 million) upheld, while the younger Chey was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for conspiring with his brother. They plan to appeal to the Supreme Court against the ruling in the belief that Kim's testimony could overturn the verdict.
But it remains to be seen whether Kim will admit his role in the embezzlement as Chey has alleged. It is said that Kim could come up with a totally different story from Chey, who accused Kim of betraying him and pocketing the huge amount of money.