SEOUL -- Fugitive businessman Kim Woo Choong, the founder and former chairman of Daewoo Motor Co. who has been accused of financial misdeeds and looting the company's assets, returned to Korea on Tuesday after more than five years on the lam.
He was met at Incheon International Airport by police and was taken directly to the Supreme Public Prosecutors' Office, where he was questioned for seven hours. He is expected to be formally charged.
Kim, 68, has been hiding overseas since the autumn of 1999, when he went abroad amid the automaker's financial collapse.
During the years since, there were occasional media reports that he had been sighted in France, Vietnam and even in Seoul. He also is reported to have spent time in Sudan and Germany, where he reportedly had heart surgery and spent eight months recuperating.
Kim arrived in Korea at dawn on a flight from Hanoi, Vietnam, accompanied by Korean reporters. Wearing a navy blue business suit and pastel pink tie, but unshaven and appearing weak with thinning white hair, Kim told reporters, "I feel truly sorry. I am returning to take responsibility."
He promised to accept whatever punishment he might be given.
Kim & Chang, one of Korea's largest and most prominent law firms, is representing Kim, an official at the firm confirmed. The official had no additional comment.
At the airport, Kim was met by a group of about 30 former employees and friends, and by more than 100 demonstrators who waved signs calling for his prosecution. Police had difficulty moving him through a jostling crowd of reporters and protesters and into a waiting sedan.
A flurry of reports over the last few weeks said that Kim wanted to return to Seoul and was negotiating with the government.
Getting his start as a textile salesman, Kim was an inveterate risk-taker who rapidly built one of Korea's biggest business empires by incurring huge amounts of debt. His Daewoo Group quickly became one of Korea's biggest conglomerates, known as a chaebol. It included companies in numerous industries, ranging from shipbuilding and construction equipment to computers and financial services.
A crown jewel was Daewoo Motor Co., which Kim expanded partly by taking over and renovating outdated auto plants in former communist countries. In Warsaw, Poland, for example, he spent $1.1 billion to modernize a former plant with a capacity of 400,000 cars a year.
But Kim's business empire imploded after the credit crisis and business slowdown that followed the Asian financial collapse of 1997. As credit tightened, the company could no longer stay afloat in a sea of debt. It filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2000.
Kim already had fled overseas. Soon he was being sought for investigation on charges of falsifying numbers on his companies' balance sheets to inflate the value of assets. In 2001, Korean police issued a warrant for his arrest through Interpol.
Korea's Financial Supervisory Commission alleged that company executives had overstated the value of the parent Daewoo Group's assets by $21 billion, with the intent of misleading investors and regulators in order to obtain loans.
There also were accusations that Kim had siphoned off Daewoo Motor assets. In 2001, a leader of Daewoo Motor's union alleged in an interview with Automotive News that Kim had looted the automaker of nearly $19 billion.
Seven other Daewoo executives have since been convicted on charges of embezzlement and violating foreign-exchange laws. But Kim's supporters say the charges against him are overstated, and that his accomplishments also should be remembered. They say the company transferred funds abroad to pay overseas expenses.
In May, several of the convicted Daewoo executives were granted amnesty on the occasion of Buddha's birthday, which may have been seen by Kim and his supporters as a sign that the atmosphere for prosecuting him has moderated.
Daewoo Group's debts had been estimated at as much as $70 billion to $80 billion at the time of its collapse. The government injected a huge amount of public funds into the various companies to keep them from failing.
In October 2002, GM launched GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co., owned with a group of partners, and bought most of the assets of bankrupt Daewoo Motor Co. It operates them today as a major GM unit.
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