The return of former United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon today to South Korea, where he is widely expected to run for presidency, has been clouded by bribery scandals involving himself and his family members.
While Mr Ban, whose 10-year UN tenure ended last month, has not declared his candidacy, he ranks highly in major opinion polls and is second only to opposition candidate Moon Jae In.
Mr Ban will spend two weeks talking to people before making a decision, said his spokesman yesterday.
South Koreans will go to the polls earlier than scheduled if the Constitutional Court upholds the Parliament's impeachment of suspended President Park Geun Hye over an influence peddling and corruption scandal involving her close friend and aides. The court is scheduled to make a decision before June.
Mr Ban, 72, is being courted by both the opposition People's Party and the conservative Righteous Party, which broke away from the ruling Saenuri Party after Ms Park's scandal. But before Mr Ban could throw his hat into the ring, scandals have threatened to taint his reputation.
Last month, local magazine Sisa Journal accused him of receiving US$230,000 (S$331,000) in bribes from businessman Park Yeon Cha, who was embroiled in a bribery scandal involving the late former president Roh Moo Hyun. Citing unnamed sources, Sisa claimed that Mr Park gave Mr Ban a bag of cash in 2005 when he was foreign minister and another bag in 2007 after he became UN Secretary-General.
Vietnam skyscraper bribery case
SEOUL • At a height of 350m, Landmark 72 is the tallest building in Vietnam. The US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) skyscraper was built by South Korea's Keangnam Enterprise, which ran into financial trouble in early 2013 and hired US-based real estate agent Ban Joo Hyun to sell the complex.
Ban, 38, is the son of Keangnam executive Ban Ki Sang, 69, and nephew of former UN chief Ban Ki Moon.
Ban and his father allegedly conspired to pay US$2.5 million in bribes to the head of a Middle Eastern wealth fund to buy Landmark 72 for US$800 million. They did so via blogger Malcolm Harris, 52.
But Harris ended up stealing the first payment of US$500,000. All three were indicted in a Manhattan court on Tuesday for their involvement in an international bribery case. Prosecutors said Ban Ki Sang got his firm to hire his son, who stood to earn at least US$5 million in commission if the deal went through.
Ban, who was arrested on Tuesday, pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. Both Ban Ki Sang and Harris are still at large. Last October, Ban was ordered by a Seoul court to pay US$590,000 in damages to Keangnam for failing to sell Landmark 72, despite receiving money from the firm to do so. The debt-ridden Keangnam went into receivership in March 2015 and its chairman killed himself a month later, amid corruption allegations.
Chang May Choon
Mr Ban will deny the allegations when he meets the media at the airport today, said his spokesman, who added that Mr Ban is not aware that his brother and nephew were indicted in New York on Tuesday over bribery charges.
Ban Ki Sang, 69, and his son Joo Hyun, 38, had allegedly tried to bribe a Middle East fund manager to buy over a cash-strapped skyscraper in Vietnam built by a Korean company where the older Ban was working.
Analysts said Mr Ban Ki Moon might offer an apology for causing public concern, so as to minimise the impact of the two scandals on his presidential bid.
He may also attempt to explain the case involving his brother and nephew. Even though Mr Ban is not directly involved in the scandal, he is still "guilty by association", Korea University's politics and international relations professor Kim Byung Ki told The Straits Times.
Prof Kim said the bribery allegations against Mr Ban will "certainly hurt him, but it's not going to destroy him", as it is quite common for South Korean politicians to be embroiled in all kinds of scandals.
Political commentator David Lee cited how former president Lee Myung Bak won the election in 2007 despite being plagued by a major stock manipulation scandal throughout his campaign.
Dr Lee said Mr Ban's scandals will have a "very minor negative effect" on his possible candidacy. "Everyone has some kind of private scandal. South Korea is a slightly corrupt society, not like Singapore," he told The Straits Times.
Prof Kim said Mr Ban's "uniqueness" is that he has been away from politics, which sets him apart from his rivals. "That's why Mr Ban is so promising. Once you begin to have doubts, it could pose a problem but it's too early to tell now."