SEOUL • One of the top executives at South Korea's Lotte Group was found dead yesterday hours before he was to be questioned by prosecutors conducting a criminal probe into the family-run conglomerate. Suicide was suspected.
Lotte Group, in a text message to reporters, said it confirmed the death of vice-chairman Lee In Won through police and other sources. It did not give the cause of death.
His body was found hanged from a tree near a hiking trail in the eastern town of Yangpyeong, some 50km east of Seoul, reported local media.
A four-page letter - apparently a suicide note - was found in his car, expressing loyalty to the group's chairman Shin Dong Bin and denying allegations that the firm had avoided huge sums of tax and created slush funds.
Mr Lee had been with the group since 1973 and was the top executive outside the Shin family that controls the conglomerate. He was a long- time CEO of Lotte Shopping, one of the group's biggest businesses.
"He oversaw Lotte Group's overall housekeeping and core businesses and accurately understood the minds of chairman-in-chief Shin Kyuk Ho and chairman Shin Dong Bin," Lotte Group said.
Mr Lee was also engaged in finding new growth opportunities.
He was the top lieutenant of the chairman, who last year saw off a challenge from his older brother for control of the group founded by their 94-year-old father Shin Kyuk Ho.
In June, prosecutors raided Lotte offices, looking into a possible slush fund as well as breach of trust involving transactions among the group's companies, sources said at the time. Mr Lee, who was 69, had been scheduled to appear before prosecutors yesterday morning, a Lotte official said.
Mr Park Ju Gun, head of corporate analysis firm CEO Score, said Mr Lee's death was likely to hamper the investigation. The probe into Lotte had already exacted a devastating toll on its businesses, which range from hotels and retail to chemicals.
Its Hotel Lotte unit was forced in June to shelve an initial public offering to raise up to 5.7 trillion won (S$6.9 billion), which would have made it the world's largest this year.
Also in June, its Lotte Chemical Corp unit withdrew from bidding for United States-based Axiall Corp, citing its difficulties in South Korea. Rival Westlake Chemical Corp ended up with a US$2.33 billion (S$3.2 billion) deal for Axiall.
In South Korea, it is not unusual for a high-profile suspect to commit suicide when he is the subject of an investigation.
In 2003, Chung Mong Hun, then chairman of the country's No. 2 conglomerate Hyundai Group, jumped to his death from his office building after being interrogated over the group's secret transfer of US$500 million to North Korea for business deals.
Last year, businessman Sung Wan Jong hanged himself, leaving a note suggesting he had offered bribes to powerful elite players including former prime minister Lee Wan Koo.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE