Hyundai Tycoon Jumps to His Death

SEOUL, South Korea -- A top executive of the Hyundai conglomerate, whose business spearheaded reconciliation efforts with North Korea but ended up tangled in debt and scandal, plunged to his death from his office window Monday.

Chung Mong-hun, 54, jumped from the 12th story of the Hyundai headquarters building in central Seoul, police said. A janitor found his body in shrubbery near a parking lot, first mistaking him for a slumbering drunkard.

Chung was on trial on charges stemming from allegations that his company, Hyundai-Asan, helped former President Kim Dae-jung's government secretly pay North Korea $100 million to get Pyongyang to agree to a historic 2000 summit between the Koreas.

Both Hyundai and President Roh Moo-hyun bemoaned Chung's death and said they will continue to push for joint business ventures in communist North Korea. But the sudden death of the Hyundai scion, who had been a one-man drive for the conglomerate's money-losing ventures in North Korea, cast doubt on whether Hyundai would manage huge investments that would tax heavily its already indebted subsidiaries.

Chung left hurriedly scribbled notes for his family and Kim Yoon-kyu, his deputy, appealing for forgiveness and asking that his ashes be scattered over Diamond Mountain, a scenic resort in North Korea where his company runs a money-losing tourism project. He also asked them to "forgive my foolish act." Only parts of the notes were released to the media, so it was not clear whether Chung explained his reasoning further.

Described as shy yet extremely ambitious by aides, Chung was once the "crown heir" of the vast Hyundai conglomerate his late father, Chung Ju-yung, had built from scratch into South Korea's largest business empire, engaged in everything from cars and ships to department stores and computer chips.

The fifth of the senior Chung's eight sons, Mong-hun, rose to the conglomerate's chairmanship in a highly unusual move in South Korea's deeply Confucian corporate society where the eldest son takes over the family's business.

In a family feud in 2000, however, his elder brother, Mong-hun, revolted and broke away from the group, taking Hyundai Motor, South Korea's No. 1 carmaker, with him.

Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest shipbuilder, also broke away in government-driven corporate reforms aimed at chopping up South Korea's sprawling family-controlled conglomerates into nimble and more profitable units following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Mong-hun, left with heavily indebted or only marginally profitable subsidiaries, invested his hopes in North Korean projects his father had initiated before his death in 2001. Born to a peasant family in North Korea, the senior Chung had a passion for investing in the North.

Chung Mong-hun frequently visited North Korea, meeting top North Korean leaders. He played a key role in arranging a historic summit between the two Koreas in 2000.

The meeting was a breakthrough in efforts to reconcile the North and South and helped former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung win the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. But Chung's seemingly reckless deals in the North soon boomeranged after Kim stepped down in February after a five-year term.

An independent counsel appointed by President Roh Moo-hyun to investigate the summit scandal announced in June that Hyundai-Asan sent $500 million to North Korea secretly and through improper channels, shortly before the 2002 summit, but said only $400 million was a company investment to secure business rights covering tourism, railways and an industrial park.

The rest -- $100 million -- was raised and sent by Hyundai on behalf of the government, the counsel said.

Chung was indicted on charges of doctoring company books to hide the money transfers. If convicted, he could have faced up to three years in prison.