Giant resort firm in Korea fights to clear its name

In the past two decades, South Korea has been transformed from a war-ravaged farming society into an important industrial nation with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This miraculous metamorphosis of the country's socioeconomic structure has brought about, among other things, the birth of a so-called ''leisure industry.'' For the first time in their 5,000-year-old history, many Koreans have in recent years begun traveling en masse for fun and rest.

With the expansion of air, bus, train and highways systems linking major tourist destinations within the country, South Korea is suddenly a nation of conspicuous consumption in terms of domestic travel and leisure.

One of the major figures responsible for this transformation of the country's life style is Kim Chul Ho, chairman of South Korea's Myung Sung Group, the country's fastest-growing and, perhaps, most-controversial concern.

(The Myung Sung Group has evaded taxes totalling $14.28 million, according to an Office of National Tax Administration announcement Aug. 17.

The ONTA report, prepared by more than 80 tax investigators working since June 15, said that the group evaded taxes by keeping false accounts and other irregularities.

The federal tax agency referred the case to the prosecutor's office, and Mr. Kim was arrested.

In his talks with this writer earlier this month before his arrest, Mr. Kim denied any wrongdoing, as he did in front-page ads in major daily newspapers earlier this month.)

Mr. Kim has been regarded as devoutly religious and a model family man, which is particularly uncommon in a country where many business tycoons are too busy to devote much time to regular religious worship or their own families.

''I'm a Christian, and my faith means everything to me. Within the Christian context, our business group is engaged in the scrupulously designed construction of solar collectors, livestock farms, leisure towns, and recreational facilities for people from all walks of life at home and abroad.

''And at a time when newly industrialized nations - and some advanced ones, too - suffer from a spiritual void, we're also in the process of building places of worship, including the world's largest nondenominational church, in addition to our active support of the creative arts and traditional crafts,'' Mr. Kim said.

The passionate exponent of this unusual business credo, who works from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. six days a week, was virtually unknown in the business world until a few years ago. His meteoric rise to fame made him the most-talked-about Korean businessman and earned him such nicknames as ''mystery man'' and ''miracle worker.''

A pet project of his is a mammoth Olympic leisure town 15 times the size of Disneyland in a scenic mountain region some 30 miles east of Seoul. The $500 million complex - expected to be completed in 1986, in time for the '86 Asian Olympics and '88 World Olympic Games in Seoul - will contain a futuristic amusement park called Star World, five condominiums, medical facilities, zoological and botanical gardens, an international folk-village-cum-museum, a sculpture park, two golf courses, and a 16-trail skiing facility.

The Myung Sung Group has already completed medium-size leisure towns in Yongin, some 20 miles south of Seoul, and in the foothills of Mt. Jiri in the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula. It is now finishing a giant leisure town near Mt. Sorak on the picturesque east coast that will include two condominiums and a 219-room hotel, as well as a minisize Star World and other recreational centers. A spokesman for the group boasts that the condominiums, each 426 meters long, should make the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1979, Mr. Kim - then an obscure businessman from Kwangju - surprised everyone by buying land for a couple of golf courses and completing each course in six months, netting in the process a huge profit through coveted and costly membership fees. And he began buying thousands of ''useless'' hilly acres to realize his dream project: leisure towns across the country.

Four years later, the Myung Sung Group emerged with 16 ever-expanding affiliate companies, giving rise to public speculation about the source of the group's capital investment and Myung Sung's phenomenal business coups.

An audit conducted by the National Tax Administration (South Korea's Internal Revenue Service) last year showed $12.6 million of the group's capital outlay of to reveal on grounds that the group had promised them anonymity.

As the price for keeping the group's secrecy agreement with the investors, Myung Sung paid the government $2.3 million in ''back taxes.''

Still the question remained: Who loaned the money? To the public and mass media alike, it became the nation's no. 1 guessing game.

For the Olympic leisure town, according to Mr. Kim, nearly half of the $500 million investment comes from foreign loans. ''The leisure industry is relatively new in our country,'' he said, ''so capital circulation in this business is slow, to put it mildly.

''I've decided to solve the problem by opening the leisure towns as they're completed, unit by unit, and reinvesting the returns,'' he added. ''The sale of condominum units has thus far brought a substantial sum of money for investment from those, largely from the middle-income bracket.''

As a devout Christian, Kim is determined to change the style of Korean tourism from unsavory parties to healthy family-style rest-and-recreation activities.

For this reason, his group's emphasis is on a natural setting of the leisure towns. ''I want to turn our country into a world-famous tourist attraction like Switzerland. After all, only 20 percent of our rugged land is suitable for farming, and we're thus blessed with the natural material for this purpose.''

Myung Sung plans to build six more leisure towns across the peninsula. Other ambitious plans include four floating hotels off the Korean coast - each with 1, 200 rooms, 55 floors above and seven below sea level - and development of Fiji and other far-away islands through South Pacific affiliates.

Meanwhile, both the public and mass media are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the National Tax Association investigation. Kim and his top exectuives are confident that Myung Sung will come out clean, because, they insist, they have not done anything illegal or unethical.

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